The Obama administration left the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) investigative unit in tatters before giving President Donald Trump the keys to the agency.
The number of special agents in the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division cratered from 207 to 154 during the Obama era, which reduced the number of cases by 47 percent. One career EPA official believes that agency Chief Scott Pruitt will help the unit back on the straight and narrow.
“The last administration crippled EPA’s criminal enforcement program,” Henry Barnet, director of the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training, said Friday in a press statement, referring to cuts that former President Barack Obama imposed on the staff of the agency’s investigative unit.
The EPA has 147 special agents in its Criminal Investigation Division, which is less than half the number of those employed in 2003, according to documents Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) obtained earlier this year through open records requests.
The division opened a mere 170 new cases in Fiscal Year 2016, down nearly half from the previous four years. Trump’s EPA, meanwhile, is on pace to open just 120 cases in 2017. Barnet sounded an optimistic tone about the unit’s chances with Pruitt at the helm.
“Administrator Pruitt is highly supportive of our program, he took the unprecedented step of meeting with our criminal investigators and reaffirmed that we’d have the resources to carry out our mission,” said Barnet, who has headed the unit since 2011.
Obama’s decision to slash investigations 47 percent and staff 24 percent was done, in part, to shift investigations to a new enforcement system called Next Generation Compliance in 2014. The new system was done to ease oversight through electronic reporting and “advanced pollution detection technology.” Environmentalists balked at the move at the time.
“There’s no evidence companies are increasing their compliance because of the change,” Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, told reporters in August when his group obtained the documents. The agency’s cuts, he said, were not made to save money.
“We’re not talking about a large investment here,” Ruch said. “It’s a political decision.”
Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal illustrates there is still a need for regulatory oversight, he added.
VW colluded with various auto parts distributors during the past decade to falsely advertise its “clean diesel” engines, when in fact the diesel engines emitted vast amounts of nitrogen oxide (NOx). The EPA only opened an investigation after West Virginia University researchers discovered the duplicity.
The agency was scrutinized in 2016 and earlier this year for failing to investigate the Flint lead crisis. Several thousand citizens in the small Michigan town sued the U.S. federal government in January for what they believe was the EPA’s mishandling of the water crisis.
The lawsuit claims that the EPA failed to take the proper steps to ensure that state and local authorities were addressing the crisis. The defendants are sought a civil action lawsuit for $722 million in damages.
Michigan officials switched the small Eastern Michigan city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a bid to save money. But the state applied the wrong regulations and standards for drinking water, which ultimately resulted in corroded pipes.
One report published in March claims the EPA only acts to enforce clean drinking water regulations when public outrage reaches a deafening pitch, implying negligence on the part of agency officials.
Former Obama officials did not respond to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment in time for publication.
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