updated 12/5/2008 11:34:36 AM ET 2008-12-05T16:34:36

Companies violating environmental laws will spend a record $11.8 billion to reduce pollution and they paid more in penalties over the last year than they have since the first year of the Bush administration, according to the latest government statistics.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that when the upgrades are made, releases of pollutants into the environment will be reduced by an estimated 3.9 billion pounds per year.

Granta Nakayama, the agency's top enforcement official, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the latest data shows enforcement at the agency is at an all-time high.

"Overall our enforcement program is the healthiest it has been in many years," Nakayama said.

The data, released Thursday, represents the final look at environmental enforcement under the Bush administration, which has decreased the emphasis on civil penalties and criminal enforcement, for an approach that encourages companies to comply with the law.

In fiscal year 2008, companies spent more than ever to install pollution controls to bring their facilities into compliance with environmental regulations. Polluters also paid $127 million in fines, the largest amount since fiscal year 2004.

But some environmentalists said many of those investments would not have occurred under changes the Bush administration is trying to complete before leaving office that would alter how air pollution increases are calculated at power plants.

If that rule were in effect, a $4.6 billion settlement with American Electric Power that accounts for 40 percent of the record-setting total would likely not have happened, according to Eric Schaeffer, a former top EPA enforcement official who now heads the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group.

"The bottom line is that these numbers reflect a good year," Schaeffer said. But there "is some irony there, as these are the requirements that the Bush administration is still trying to eliminate before they leave town."

The data shows a continued reduction in the number of criminal cases pursued by the administration. Fewer defendants were charged years of incarceration for environmental crimes, and the value of court-ordered environmental projects were the lowest they have been in the last five years.

Nakayama says those reductions don't reflect the big cases the agency has pursued and the environmental benefits.

"We have been enforcing the heck out of the law," Nakayama said. "People may or may not agree with different environmental policies, but we have been very committed to getting compliance."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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