Polluters Face Fewer Lawsuits Under Bush EPA

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, October 14, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration has not vigorously enforced the nation's key environmental laws and has allowed polluters to escape litigation over alleged violations, according to a former top enforcement official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"The Department of Justice and the EPA have gotten shy about taking polluters to court lately," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former head of the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement.

Schaeffer, who resigned from the EPA in 2002 in protest of the Bush administration's air pollution policies, has emerged as a constant thorn in the side of the administration.

His organization has released a slew of reports blasting the Bush administration's environmental policies - this latest study directly compares the enforcement track record of the first three years of the Bush administration with the final three years of the Clinton administration.

The review of publicly available data "shows that civil lawsuits for violation of anti-pollution laws have declined more than 75 percent," said Schaeffer, who blamed "White House decisions to rewrite environmental rules and put the brakes on enforcement actions" for the decline.

The Environmental Integrity Project report finds that the Justice Department filed 36 lawsuits against companies for violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and federal hazardous waste laws in the first three years of the Bush administration. emissions

The Bush administration has moved to ease clean air rules for the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants. (Photo courtesy NASA)
This compares with 152 lawsuits filed in the last three years of the Clinton administration against companies for violations of the same environmental laws.

EPA Press Secretary Cynthia Bergman called the report "an inaccurate characterization of our enforcement efforts."

The number of new lawsuits is not a key indicator for the success of the nation's pollution laws, Bergman said, and "enforcement is just one tool in our clean energy strategy."

Bergman said the administration is focused on regulatory - rather than litigious - solutions to improve the nation's environment.

"There is an ongoing tension among environmental professionals on the respective benefits of litigation as a means of reducing pollution and those who believe in creating a mandatory market-based approach," she said.

The Environmental Integrity Project report adds to the conflicting pictures of the Bush administration's record on enforcement of environmental laws.

Last week the U.S. Justice Department touted fiscal year 2004 as a record breaking year for environmental enforcement, with polluters agreeing to spend more than $4 billion to remedy shortcomings and actions that harmed public health and the environment.

These actions include a recent $320 million Clean Air Act settlement with oil giant Citgo and a landmark $3.1 million Clean Water Act settlement with retailer Wal-Mart.

"We are steadfast in our mission to require polluters to take corrective measures that will protect the public health and environment and to pay for the consequences of their non-compliance," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sansonetti.

But that announcement came on the heels of a report by the EPA's Inspector General that blasted the administration's enforcement of the Clean Air Act's New Source Review provision, which governs the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants.

The EPA Inspector General found the Bush administration's revisions to New Source Review have "seriously hampered EPA settlement activities, existing enforcement cases, and the development of future cases" against coal-fired electric utilities.

The Inspector General's report echoed many complaints of the Bush rule revision made by environmentalists, public health advocates and state pollution control officers.

It is utilities that have benefited the most from the Bush administration, environmentalists say.

Last November, the agency's enforcement staff was told to "set aside" investigations against more than 70 power companies. bush

President George W. Bush has touted the economic benefits of his environmental policies, in particular his revisions to clean air regulations. (Photo by Tina Hager courtesy White House)
The agency had earlier referred 14 cases against power companies to the Justice Department for prosecution, but only one new case has been filed since January of 2001.

According to EIP's report, enforcement actions under the Clean Air Act have dropped dramatically - with only nine suits filed by the EPA during the Bush years, compared to 51 filed in the final three years of the Clinton administration.

"What is disturbing is that while EPA and the Department of Justice have completed some of the cases they inherited, very few new enforcement actions are being taken," the EIP report says. "Companies that refuse to settle voluntarily are now much less likely to be taken to court."

Bush officials contend they are working to settle or litigate existing suits against more than 20 power companies and note that only one New Source Review settlement was finalized under the Clinton administration.

Environmentalists, however, have been less than pleased with some of the settlements brokered by the Bush administration for alleged New Source Review violations.

A widely touted $600 million settlement with Wisconsin Electric Power Company, announced in April 2003, was stayed last month by a federal judge.

Local and national public interest groups are challenging the settlement because it does not require the company to clean up two of the five power plants that allegedly violated the law.