EPA defends enforcement actions

/ Source: The Associated Press

Criticized for not aggressively pursuing polluters, the Environmental Protection Agency produced enforcement data Monday that agency officials said showed results similar to previous years.

The EPA said that enforcement actions by the agency in 2004 will eliminate 1 billion pounds annually of projected pollution and will require a record $4.8 billion in environmental cleanups.

“Those are outstanding results that will impact and improve people’s lives,” said Tom Skinner, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for enforcement.

He said the numbers “demonstrated very strong performance” by the EPA enforcement office and that the agency was “pushing companies to install more effective pollution controls.”

The agency said the number of inspections increased by 11 percent and the number of investigations by 32 percent compared to the previous year.

Skinner also produced other data that he said showed “significant real-world pollution reductions” as a result of enforcement activities.

For example, he said, as a result of enforcement actions during the 2004 financial year that ended Sept. 30, 3.4 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and 9.5 million cubic yards of groundwater will be cleaned up, and an additional 4 million people will have drinking water that complies with EPA standards.

$4.8 billion figure criticized
But the statistics didn’t sway some agency critics.

The private watchdog group, Environmental Integrity Project, said that the agency’s statistics were misleading.

In a statement, the group said the EPA’s $4.8 billion figure on projected cleanup was largely as a result of two long-standing cases that were brought years ago and only concluded in 2004: a case involving the Los Angeles sewer system, $2 billion, and another involving power plants belonging to Virginia Electric Power, $1.2 billion.

Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official who founded the watchdog group, praised the enforcement office “for what they manage to accomplish despite the political handcuffs they are forced to wear.”

But Schaeffer said that civil penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act and other laws, other than Superfund toxic waste activities, “hit bottom” to the lowest level in 15 years during fiscal 2004. He said the number of judicial cases settled also were “the lowest in 10 years” but that this statistic was not included in the EPA report issued Monday.

Responding to the criticism, Skinner said the number of civil enforcement cases have been “up and down” over the last five years with an unusually high number in fiscal 2003. “We have not dropped off in terms of our level of effort,” he said.

“The numbers vary from year to year. ... If you have one or two good cases, your numbers can jump up significantly,” Skinner said. “What I think ... is clear from the numbers is that we’re doing as good or better as has been done in the past.”