While Democrats have many issues to focus on as they take control of the House of Representatives, it is critical that they work to reverse recent assaults on the EPA’s ability to protect Americans’ health. Doing so would mimic a congressional victory 35 years ago that protected the EPA against a presidential administration bent on its destruction.

Under the Trump administration, civil and criminal enforcement actions against polluters have hit their lowest point in at least a decade, as we detail in our new report based on EPA’s own enforcement data, interviews with agency staff, and unreleased internal EPA documents.

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The hemorrhaging of staff at the EPA has hit the agency’s enforcement arm, the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), particularly hard. For example, the number of criminal investigators in OECA had fallen to 140 as of April 2018, the lowest since at least 1997 and below the 200 investigators required by law.

EPA staff told us that they are gravely worried about strong directives from EPA leadership to back away from enforcement or to defer more to states.

Current EPA leadership argues that the steep decline in enforcement is due to states taking over. Yet there is little evidence that states have stepped up.

State and local enforcement of bedrock environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, also decreased under the Trump administration, as have fines imposed by state and local governments.

Moreover, if the emphasis is on transferring environmental stewardship to under-resourced states, why did the Trump administration’s 2019 proposed budget simultaneously push for drastic cuts to state aid, including a 90 percent reduction in funding to popular programs that cleanup and restore Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes?  

EPA leadership has shrugged off declines in official enforcement actions and penalties, claiming that more informal ways of achieving compliance – such as notifying a company that they are out of compliance before initiating a lawsuit or issuing a fine – are also important. But, according to our analysis of EPA’s data, informal enforcement actions are far lower in the Trump administration than they were during Obama’s time.

Aiding the sharp decrease in enforcement is the fact that the EPA’s current top political leadership is drawn almost entirely from regulated industries, including coal, oil, and chemical giants.

The acting EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, has come under scrutiny for his years spent as a powerful coal lobbyist. Trump intends to nominate Wheeler as the EPA’s permanent head. 

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EPA’s OECA is now led by Susan Bodine, who in her earlier roles as a lawyer and lobbyist, lent her expertise to a host of companies and trade groups who have violated the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Given this siege of the EPA, it is no surprise that orders levying fines on polluting industries or requiring them to reimburse cleanup costs at Superfund sites, the most toxic lands in the country, were halved in 2018 compared to the year before.

Moreover, EPA’s own recent mid-year analysis found that it initiated 52 percent fewer cases in its Clean Air Act program that regulates heavy air polluters, like coal plants, as compared to the same period the previous year. In a typical year, the Clean Air Act alone may save significantly more lives each year than the already notable 100,000 estimated by the EPA, making the failure of the Trump administration to properly enforce it troubling. 

In the early 1980s, the EPA also faced an existential threat. Former President Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch, displayed public disdain for the EPA and succeeded in slashing the agency’s budget and staff and caused dramatic drops in enforcement.

The Reagan administration’s assault on the EPA ended after only two years. A Democratic-led House aggressively pursued investigations and subpoenas that revealed conflicts of interest, mismanagement of Superfund money, and more. By late 1983, Gorsuch and 21 other political appointees had resigned, and the EPA’s leadership, resources, and mission were in part restored.

Similarly, new Democratic leadership at the helm of the House’s committees must hold the Trump administration accountable. In a promising development, Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who will help oversee the EPA as the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, recently issued a letter demanding information on the lack of enforcement against polluters.

If Trump’s EPA won’t investigate polluters, then Democrats need to investigate Trump’s EPA. In addition to investigating plummeting enforcement, Democratic leadership on the Appropriations Committee should push for an EPA budget that will allow OECA to hire sufficient staff to carry out its mission.

The new Democratic-led House can restore teeth to the agency that safeguards our health – they did it once before.

Jennifer Liss Ohayon is a researcher at Silent Spring Institute and Northeastern University.

Leif Fredrickson is working with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative to put the Trump administration's policies in historical context. He is also writing a book about the history of lead poisoning in Baltimore and the nation.