January 24, 2019 / 7:54 PM / a month ago

EPA fines for polluters at lowest level in two decades, data shows

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued $72 million in civil penalties to polluters last year, the lowest level in at least two decades when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis of agency data.

FILE PHOTO: An empty podium awaits the arrival of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to address staff at EPA headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ting Shen

Environmental advocates called the level of fines a symptom of the Trump administration’s pro-fossil-fuel agenda. The EPA rejected that assertion and said it was using “all the tools” at its disposal to deter pollution.

The analysis, conducted by President Barack Obama’s former EPA assistant administrator, Cynthia Giles, and first reported by the Washington Post, showed civil fines for polluters during 2018 at $72 million, the lowest level since at least 1994.

Over the previous 20 years, EPA had issued a wide range of fine totals, ranging from a low of $86 million in 2007 to over $6 billion during Obama’s final year in office - a massive outlier because of a settlement the EPA finalized with BP (BP.L) over its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The median level of the EPA’s annual fines during that period was about $155 million, according to the data, which Giles shared with Reuters on Thursday.

The Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, blasted the EPA’s performance on enforcement under Republican President Donald Trump, saying it reflected the administration’s pro-fossil-fuel and de-regulation agenda.

Trump was elected partly on a promise to revive the U.S. coal industry and boost oil and gas drilling, and he has been working to undo Obama-era environmental protections.

“President Trump promised to reduce EPA to little tidbits during his campaign, so it should be no surprise to see enforcement of environmental laws he’s never liked decline on his watch,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former director of civil enforcement at the EPA.

The EPA said it was not giving polluters any breaks, and cited a recent $305 million settlement with Fiat Chrysler (FCAU.N) over emissions violations.

“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,” said Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Leslie Adler

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