U.S. suits against polluters drop 75%

Report compares number filed in Bush's first 3 years with Clinton's last 3 years

The Nation

October 13, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Civil lawsuits filed against polluters by the federal government fell more than 75 percent in the first three years of President Bush's term compared with the last three years of the Clinton administration, according to a report by the former enforcement chief of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Eric Schaeffer, director of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project who left the EPA in protest two years ago, charged yesterday that the Bush White House's industry-friendly orientation has made the Justice Department and the EPA "shy" about suing polluters. The number of lawsuits filed by the federal government against power plants, factories and others fell from 152 in the three years ending Jan. 18, 2001, to 36 in the three years ending Jan. 18, 2004.

The data came from Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Schaeffer's Washington-based organization, according to the report released yesterday, titled "Polluters Breathe Easier."

Enforcement `holiday'

"If you are a big energy company, you are basically on holiday from enforcement," said Schaeffer, the chief of regulatory enforcement for the EPA from 1997 to February 2002. "This is really a kind of collapse of enforcement that is difficult to explain away. It happens when career [EPA] staff are effectively muzzled and not allowed to do their job."

Among the categories of decline in civil suits that were noted in the report: Clean Air Act enforcement lawsuits fell from 61 to 9; Clean Water Act lawsuits fell from 56 to 22; and lawsuits for violations of federal hazardous waste laws dropped from 19 to 5.

The report follows a Sept. 30 report by the EPA's internal auditor, Nikki L. Tinsley, that said the Bush administration has weakened air regulations and "seriously hampered" the agency's ability to force dirty, coal-fired power plants to install pollution controls.

Misleading, EPA says

EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said that both reports are misleading, in part because they don't take into account the Bush administration's shift in strategy from lawsuits to emissions credit trading systems, which she said are more effective in reducing pollution.

In the free-market trading systems favored by Bush, power plants and factories must buy credits to pollute above a specified level, and the money they contribute goes to reward other plants that are cleaner.

"The EPA's focus is results - cleaner air and healthier lives for every American," Bergman said in a written statement. "Enforcement is just one tool in our clean air strategy, and today's report doesn't look at the whole picture."

Bergman said that EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt will finalize regulations this fall expanding an emissions trading program called the Clean Air Interstate Rule, aimed at cutting sulfur dioxide pollution by 9 million tons. That's three times the pollution reduction that the EPA could have achieved through filing lawsuits against power companies, Bergman said.

Schaeffer said Bergman's figures are misleading because the 9 million figure takes into account emissions that would have been reduced anyway under existing regulations, while the 3 million figure does not.

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