Wednesday, September 15, 2010

EPA’s Pollution-Busting Cops Have Lost Focus, Say Watchdogs

The federal government’s anti-pollution detectives have lost their focus,
allege government watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental

According to documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act,
the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation unit is understaffed and
referring fewer cases for federal prosecution than during the Bush

“We’ve been contacted by special agents in the EPA’s Criminal Investigation
Division saying they feel that the program is headed in the wrong direction,”
said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch.

PEER’s announcement, which came days before the 40th anniversary of the EPA’s
Clean Air Act, is the latest in a series of CID controversies.

During the Bush administration, when the EPA at large was under political
pressure to skew many of its scientific decisions in favor of industry, CID
investigators were assigned such environmentally-unrelated activities as providing
security at Super Bowls and all-star games

Rather than pursuing corporate wrongdoers, some of the agency’s elite,
badge-carrying agents became personal errand-runners for then-EPA chief Christie
Todd Whitman, who used them to pick up laundry and walk
her dogs

Backlash sparked by attention from PEER and other activists prompted review,
and the EPA under President Obama has — despite concerns over chief Lisa
Jackson’s industry
ties and prior pollution enforcement record
— been far truer to its

But according to PEER, much work remains to be done.

“The overall point that agents are bringing to us is that the management of
CID has lost focus on environmental prosecution as the purpose of the program,”
said Ruch. “Things are adrift.”

Employment records released by the EPA to PEER show that in June, there were
just 173
CID investigators
(pdf), well below the 200 required by the U.S. Pollution
Protection Act of 1990 and fewer than the 180 investigators employed at the end
of the Bush administration.

“You’d think that to the extent you’re going to do more enforcement, having
more inestigators would be a good idea,” said Ruch.

According to an EPA statement relayed by agency spokesperon Stacy Kika, those
numbers were accurate when sent to PEER in June but no longer apply. “With
recent hires, EPA currently has 192 agents in its Criminal Investigative
Division and another 20 in the pipeline,” said the EPA.

PEER’s documents also show that CID referred only 339
cases for federal prosecution
(pdf) in 2009, well below the Bush
administration average of 365 cases per year. The agency doesn’t conduct
prosecutions itself, but suggests candidates for legal action to the Department
of Justice.

The EPA replied that it had opened 387 cases in 2009, the highest number in
five years. But Ruch said that cases referred are a far more meaningful

“Opening a case just means that you’ve started an investigation, which may or
may not be concluded, which may or may not be referred for prosecution,” he
said. “We’re focusing on the number of cases that EPA took to the Justice
Department and said, ‘You should prosecute.’”

Stated the agency, “Special agents are carefully allocating our finite
resources by going after the biggest, most serious offenders.”

PEER will deliver further critiques of CID in coming months, said Ruch.

“What we’re hearing, on an anecdotal basis, is that a lot of the focus is on
bureaucratic minutiae, at the expense of putting polluters in jail,” he

Image: Chemical waste on a beach in Lake Charles, Louisiana photographed
in 1972 by Marc St.
as part of the EPA’s Documerica

See Also:

Brandon Keim’s Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working
on an ecological tipping point

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