EPA Clouds Its Enforcement Record Under Bush Administration

  • Published on October 23rd, 2008

GAO report says EPA overstates enforcement of pollutersThe report was requested by Reps. John Dingell (D-MI), the Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak (D-MI), Chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation.

In a statement released by Dingell’s office, the GAO report was said to have found “shortcomings in the measures used by the Environmental Protection Agency to report the effectiveness of its civil and criminal enforcement programs to Congress and the public.”

The report says the EPA overstated it enforcement of environmental violations by including fines that may never be paid when tallying its penalties.

“Not a priority”

“Environmental enforcement has simply not been a priority for the Bush EPA,” said Stupak. “While this report shows how environmental enforcement has declined, it doesn’t expose the real story behind the numbers: cases not brought, polluters not pursued, and fines not collected.”

Dingell added:

“EPA has tried to cover up the decline in enforcement by coming up with exaggerated estimates of pollution reduction and environmental savings, but under this Administration, there have been fewer cases brought, lower penalties assessed, and a decrease in fines collected. The bottom line is that environmental enforcement has significantly declined since the Bush Administration took office. Somehow, we are not surprised.”

The GAO report indicated that assessed penalties from the EPA declined from $240.6 million in 1998 to $137.7 million in 2007, adjusted for inflation.

The EPA assesses the effectiveness of its enforcement programs through a variety of means, including assessed penalties, the value of injunctive relief, and the actual amount of pollution eliminated, treated, or reduced as a result of enforcement.

The GAO found three main problems in how the EPA calculates and reports information on penalties that it fears will inhibit the accuracy and transparency of the EPA’s reporting to Congress and the public. Specifically:

  • Overstating the impact of the enforcement programs by reporting penalties assessed against violators rather than actual payments received by the U.S. Treasury.
  • Reducing the precision of trend analysis by reporting nominal rather than inflation-adjusted penalties, thereby understating past accomplishments.
  • Understating the influence of its enforcement programs by excluding the portion of penalties awarded to states in federal cases.

The GAO report recommends specific steps the EPA Administrator should take to improve the accuracy and transparency of the reports given to Congress. Dingell’s office summarized those steps:

When reporting the amount and nature of penalties stemming from enforcement actions, the EPA should disclose:

  1. penalties in a manner that clearly indicates that they are assessed rather than collected penaltie
  2. penalties collected as well as assessed by the federal government
  3. time series data that are adjusted for inflation
  4. the states’ share of penalties in federal cases

When reporting other major outcome measures of civil enforcement efforts, clearly disclose:

  1. that the monetary value of injunctive relief is based on estimates of future amounts that defendants expect to spend to achieve outcomes, as agreed in consent decrees
  2. that the pounds of pollution reduced represent the anticipated reduction for a 1-year period at the anticipated time of compliance

The full 21 page report from the GAO is available online (pdf)

How much more damage?

The EPA has had a troubled time under George Bush, from reports of political pressure on staff scientists and researchers to suppress their findings to the contentious issue of how Administrator Johnson decided to deny California’s waiver to enforce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes against the unanimous recommendations of his staff (and much more).

But, as Carl Pope recently wrote in the Huffington Report, there has been some good news coming from the EPA lately:

As the Bush era winds down, there may not be much more damage his administration can do. That doesn’t diminsh the damage already done, but perhaps, with a bit of luck and the right president taking office in January, the EPA can get back to business, and the civil servants within the EPA can once again devote their working lives to the true mission of the agency – protecting human health and the environment – instead of playing hide and seek with Congress and the public while pursuing a purely political, anti-environment agenda.

About the Author

is an online publisher, editor, and freelance writer. He is the founder of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the History Blog Project, as well as publisher and site director for the HippieMagazine.com. Tom also contributes to numerous environmental blogs, including TriplePundit, Ecopolitology, Sustainablog, and Planetsave.   Tom's work has led him to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, the South Pacific, and across the United States. His home base is San Francisco, California.


  • Hey Geoff,

    No, it isn't just you. The EPA under Bush has seemed anything like an agency interested in protecting the environment.

    I had the opportunity to speak with a career EPA administrator in Atlanta on Monday when I was there for a press conference. I am generally reassured that things will be changing at the EPA under a new administration – hopefully, of course, Obama.

  • If I'm understanding this correctly, this means that there are unpaid penalties. This problem is very fixable: the next president (hopefully/probably Obama)needs to order the EPA to tell those who haven't paid the penalties to pay up.

    Is it just me, or is the EPA the only government agency that doesn't like its own purpose?

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