WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is catching and punishing far fewer polluters than the two previous administrations, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of 15 years of environmental-enforcement records.
Civil enforcement of pollution laws peaked when the president's father, George H.W. Bush, was in office from 1989-93 and has fallen ever since, but it's plummeted since George W. Bush took office three years ago. That's according to records of 17 different categories of enforcement activity obtained by Knight Ridder through the Freedom of Information Act.
William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator under the first President Bush, said he told his enforcers that "under no circumstances do I want the numbers to drop. It's your job to bring in these cases."
It's very discouraging.
We're concerned about people's health. We have a job that we're supposed to be doing and we're not doing it. And we should be.
Violation notices against polluters are the most important enforcement tool, experts say, and they've had the biggest drop under the current President Bush. The monthly average of violation notices since January 2001 has dropped 58 percent compared with the Clinton administration's monthly average.
Those pollution citations dropped 12 percent from 2001 to 2002, and another 35 percent from 2002 through the first 10 months of 2003.
Punishing polluters - by fines or referrals for prosecution - has dropped as well, but not as dramatically. Administrative fines since January 2001 are down 28 percent, when adjusted for inflation, from Clinton administration levels. Civil penalties average 6 percent less, when adjusted for inflation. And the number of cases referred to the Justice Department for prosecution is down 5 percent.
Some current EPA enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from their bosses, say they're getting the signal to slow down enforcement cases.
"It's very discouraging," said one official. "We're concerned about people's health. We have a job that we're supposed to be doing and we're not doing it. And we should be."
However, administrative orders to stop some polluting activity - a quick technique used for more mundane cases - are up 14 percent under the Bush administration.
"There's definitely less emphasis on enforcement," said Dave Ullrich, who retired this summer after 30 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, including jobs in enforcement and as a deputy regional administrator.
The EPA will brief congressional officials Thursday on its enforcement statistics and will outline new counting methods.
Knight Ridder examined EPA data in 17 categories and subcategories of civil enforcement since January 1989 and compared the records of the past three administrations.
In 13 of those 17 categories, the Bush administration had lower average numbers than the Clinton administration. And in 11 of those categories, the 2003 average was lower than the 2001 average, showing the trend increasing over time.
"It tells you somebody's not minding the enforcement store," said Sylvia Lowrance, a 24-year EPA veteran who was the agency's acting enforcement chief under Bush from January 2001 to July 2002.
Bush administration officials said the EPA is enforcing anti-pollution laws, just in a more effective way.
"The agency has what we refer to as `smart enforcement,'" EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said in an interview with Knight Ridder. "Our focus is on enforcement that changes behavior in a positive way."
That means working with companies to get them to fix problems instead of being punishment-oriented, Leavitt and his predecessor, Christine Todd Whitman, have said.
"The point of smart enforcement is that you use the best tool for each individual situation; compliance is the goal," Leavitt said.
The Bush administration judges itself by how much pollution is cleaned up and how much new control technology is installed, rather than by citations, penalties and prosecution, said J. P. Suarez, the EPA's enforcement chief. By those yardsticks, enforcement is up.
"Our upcoming numbers are going to show that our pollution reductions are through the roof, the highest they've ever been, in almost every category," Suarez said in an interview Monday. He pointed to treatment of billions of pounds of contaminated soil and billions of gallons of tainted water. He also noted that in the category of money that has to be spent on clean-ups and pollution control, the Bush administration figures "blow away the Clinton administration."
But Lowrance and environmental officials from other Republican administrations disagree.
"It's a sign that this administration is flat-out falling down on the job," said Dan Esty, a deputy assistant EPA administrator during the first Bush administration and now director of the Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy.
The statistics - examined by Lowrance and other former top EPA officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations - are the standard way the EPA measured enforcement progress.
"They measure presence. They measure whether the enforcement cop is on the beat," Lowrance said, adding: "And increasingly the cop is absent."
In each of its annual budget requests to Congress, the Bush administration has called for dramatic cuts in money and staffing for EPA enforcement, only to be rebuffed by Capitol Hill.
Of the 17 enforcement categories examined, the first Bush administration had the highest numbers in nine categories. Clinton had the highest numbers in five. This Bush administration has the highest numbers in three categories.
It often takes three years for a complicated pollution case to work from beginning to end at the EPA. The beginning - violation notices - are "when you really get somebody's attention," Reilly said. He said he's on the board of directors of a cruise ship company and "when they get (a citation), all the alarm bells go off. It's a big deal."
The first Bush administration averaged 195 citations a month. The Clinton administration averaged 183. This administration, through 33 months, has averaged 77 a month, and that's falling every month. The Bush average in 2001 was 90 violations a month. The 2002 average was 79. For 2003 through October, the average is 51, but October 2003 saw a record-low 35 violation notices.
By comparison, the first Bush administration never averaged fewer than 105 citations a month.
When citations are broken down by the specific law violated, the differences are even starker. The first Bush and Clinton administrations averaged 134 notices of water pollution violations a month. The current administration is averaging 35 a month - down 74 percent. Air pollution notices dropped 44 percent since the Clinton administration, and hazardous waste notices fell 7 percent.
EPA enforcement chief Suarez said violation notices are "poor thermometers" to judge the level of enforcement because they vary from law to law and can be triggered by small incidents. He said he doesn't pay attention to how many citations his agency issues and noted that EPA has never published violation-notice statistics as a guide.
Others insist they are very important.
The drop in violation notices doesn't bode well for the future, because "the flow of new cases into the (enforcement process) for handling and settlement prosecution is slowly drying up," said former EPA civil enforcement chief Eric Schaeffer, who quit to form an environmental-enforcement watchdog group.
In other areas of enforcement, the figures showed a smaller decline.
Referrals of cases to the Justice Department have been on a steady decline since the first President Bush's term, when they averaged 90 per quarter. That number dropped to 79 per quarter during the Clinton administration and to 75 per quarter during the current administration.
Administrative penalties are down from an average of $8.8 million a quarter during the Clinton administration to $6.4 million a quarter now. A second, stronger category of civil penalties is also down, from an average of $23.6 million under Clinton to $22.2 million under the current administration.
This Bush administration did dramatically increase civil penalties for water polluters, from $5.4 million per quarter under Clinton to $7.7 million per quarter. But it registers big decreases in air and Superfund polluter penalties.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder