updated 7/26/2007 8:48:05 AM ET 2007-07-26T12:48:05

Fewer U.S. environmental cops are tracking criminal polluters these days, their numbers steadily dropping below levels ordered by Congress. They are pursuing fewer environmental crimes in a strategy by the Bush administration to target bigger polluters.

The number of the Environmental Protection Agency's criminal investigators has dropped this year to 174, below the 200-agent minimum required by Congress, even as the EPA's overall criminal enforcement budget rose nearly 25 percent over three years to $48 million, according to EPA records.

An internal memorandum from one of the agency's top lawyers, obtained by The Associated Press, said the EPA is violating the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990, which requires the agency to employ at least 200 criminal investigators.

The agency's Criminal Investigation Division, made up of gun- and badge-carrying agents, investigates the most serious environmental violations.

In the legal memo, criminal office counsel Michael Fisher said Congress intended to increase criminal prosecutions under pollution laws by setting minimum staffing levels. Fisher wrote the memo to Assistant Administrator Granta Nakayama. Fisher did not return telephone calls and e-mails from The Associated Press over two days.

'Fewer cops ... fewer cases'
"If you have fewer cops on the beat, you end up with fewer cases," said Eric Schaeffer, who resigned as head of EPA's civil enforcement organization in 2002. He has accused the Bush administration of weakening environmental protection.

Schaeffer heads an advocacy group, Environmental Integrity Project, that compared five-year averages of the Bush and Clinton administrations and found a significant decrease in the numbers of criminal pollution investigations and civil lawsuits and the amounts of fines assessed under President Bush.

However, civil settlements requiring pollution control spending increased.

Nakayama acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that the number of the EPA's criminal investigators has dropped further, from 179 to 174, since Fisher wrote his memo in February. The reductions stem from transfers and retirements. The agency is accepting applications for four openings.

Nakayama said the EPA is reinvigorating criminal enforcement with an emphasis on pursuing high-impact cases, such as the recent felony air pollution convictions against CITGO Petroleum Corp. and convictions and fines worth millions of dollars against pipe and foundry divisions of McWane Inc. of Birmingham, Ala.

The EPA's overall criminal caseload — investigations that could lead to prosecutions later — is declining, according to the agency's figures. It has opened fewer investigations every year since 2002, when there were 484 new investigations and 216 agents. Last year, the number of new cases fell to 305.

The 1990s saw an overall increase in new criminal investigations and increases in the number of agents during seven of 10 years.

Law's sponsor is skeptical
"It is difficult to believe that environmental crime suddenly declined precipitously after Bush took office. It is more likely that the administration's enthusiasm for criminal prosecution declined," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, who spearheaded the 1990 law.

In a new investigation, Dingell's committee is looking at EPA's criminal enforcement operations and management, including duties of criminal investigators as well agents in the separate homeland security and protective service units. It also is demanding records from EPA's investigation of past drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune, the Marine base in North Carolina, which ended with no prosecution.

The EPA acknowledged that criminal investigators sometimes are pulled off cases to check routes and guard EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson when he travels, although an eight-person team separate from the criminal division is dedicated to his protective detail. A 2003 inspector general's report criticized such diversions, first disclosed by the AP and the Sacramento Bee.

Those started after Sept. 11, 2001, when the administrator received bodyguards, and criminal agents for a time helped with other homeland security duties.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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