(CNN) - Polluters are paying historically low fines under the Trump administration, according to a Washington Post analysis of the US Environmental Protection Agency's civil penalties.
The analysis comes from an expert who was familiar with the data and served in the Obama administration's EPA as the head of its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance for eight years. The expert, Cynthia Giles, is now a guest fellow at the Harvard Environmental and Energy Law Program.
According to Giles' analysis of publicly available data from the EPA, the amount of money the agency collected from civil penalties paid by companies that the EPA determined were polluting the environment dropped from an average of more than $500 million a year over the past two decades prior to the Trump administration to about $72 million in fiscal year 2017, the lowest level of fines paid in inflation-adjusted dollars since the EPA office was created in 1994. That drop stood out because 97% of the penalties in fiscal year 2017 came from actions filed under the Obama administration, according to the analysis Giles shared with CNN after it appeared in The Washington Post.
"The public expects EPA to protect them from the worst polluters," she told the Post. "The Trump EPA is not doing that. What worries me is how industry will respond to EPA's abandonment of tough enforcement."
Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in an emailed statement to CNN that "The Washington Post's January 24 article about EPA enforcement suffers from serious analytic errors.
"Let there be no mistake -- EPA enforcement will continue to correct non-compliance using all the tools at its disposal, including imposing civil penalties to maintain a level playing field and deter future misconduct," the statement said. "To suggest otherwise undermines our enforcement efforts and fails to acknowledge to good work performed by EPA enforcement staff every year."
Andrew Wheeler, the EPA's acting administrator and Trump's nominee to lead the agency, is a former Republican Senate aide on environmental issues and coal industry lobbyist who served as the deputy to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt resigned last summer after ethics and spending scandals.
In his confirmation hearing on January 16, Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that there is a lot of "misleading information in the news media" about the penalty issue.
"We are working very hard on compliance assurance, and I think the agency has for a number of years," Wheeler testified.
Compliance assurance, he explained, means essentially making sure the companies apply with pollution related laws up front rather than penalize them later. "The more compliance assurance that we have, fewer enforcement actions we need to take."
Wheeler argued that the metric the EPA currently uses is to track the number of new criminal enforcement cases that open each year. He testified that the EPA opened more criminal enforcement cases in 2017, reversing a downward trend started in 2011.
The Trump administration has proposed rollbacks of several Obama-era pollution control efforts, including weakening fuel economy targets, revising coal ash regulations and loosening emission standards on coal-fueled plants that, by the EPA's own estimate, would result in up to 1,400 more premature deaths a year as of 2030.
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