The primary task of the US Environmental Protection Agency is to protect public health and the environment. To do so, the agency must ensure that everyone, whether in the private sector or in government, complies with our nation’s laws and regulations. These safeguards are in place to protect health and safety for everyone anywhere in the country. Their enforcement safeguards are also a matter of fairness—all entities that might adversely impact our health and environment are supposed to follow the rules. So, it is particularly disturbing that the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) has taken a major hit in staffing over the past 19 months in the Trump Administration.
Here at UCS, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to help us identify changes in the number of EPA staff working on enforcement and compliance. It took a while to get the answer, but the overall results are even worse that we suspected: In EPA headquarters, at least 73 OECA staff left the office and only 4 were hired between the start of the Trump administration and late July 2018. Among those 73 departures were 17 environmental protection specialists and at least 10 scientists or engineers. The scant hires include Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine, a former lobbyist, and Deputy Assistant Administrator Patrick Traylor, a lawyer who previously defended the Koch brothers, among other industry clients.
EPA has also lost further enforcement staff (not included in the OECA list) at the regional level. Region 5, for example, lost five employees in their enforcement support section, including three investigators, while Region 7 lost several employees in its enforcement coordination office.
Those departure numbers are BIG. It means that many fewer people are out there assuring that pollution and polluters are monitored and living up to their responsibilities under the law. In addition to reductions in staff focused on pollution prevention, it also means reductions in staff for those who work on environmental cleanup, such as at Superfund sites.
There is also a critically low number of criminal investigators working for the EPA. Even though the law requires the agency to have at least 200 “special agents,” there are only 140 on staff, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
This goes along with big reductions in EPA staff across all offices as reported in the Washington Post over this past weekend. According to the Post, at least 1,600 staff have left EPA since January 2017, with fewer than 400 new employees hired. UCS’s own data shows that at least 670 of the losses have been at the 10 regional offices (with just 73 hires to offset these losses). Notably, when EPA has been hiring, they generally haven’t been hiring scientists. According to a December 2017 New York Times piece, the administrator’s office was the only unit to have more hires than departures that year, adding 73 new employees despite the departures of only 53 staff.
My colleague Kathleen Rest and I warned about the dangers of such staff attrition at the beginning of the year. In both those articles, there were warnings from former EPA staff, aligning with our own government experience, that cutting off new hiring sends all the wrong signals to young professionals about opportunities to spend part of their careers in public service—while also threatening the capacity of our federal agencies to address current and future risks. From the statistics we obtained, even the number of student trainees in the regional offices has been slashed, with only five hired (all in Region 5, the upper Midwest) but 48 lost from the other regional offices.
Our survey of federal scientists confirmed that morale is desperately low, and that many offices no longer feel they have the staff to do their jobs.
These staff reductions fly in the face of Congressional action that appropriated funds for the EPA to maintain these programs. Indeed, it seems that around the country, the Trump Administration has gone ahead and made cutbacks not only in enforcement, but also in areas such as the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Great Lakes Program, the Gulf of Mexico program, and others—despite the fact that Congress provided the funding for them.
What does all this mean? It means the Environmental Protection Agency has taken a step backwards on protecting the health and environment for workers, communities, families, for you. New agency directions call for changing the priorities for enforcement and for dropping a special focus on oil and gas extraction and concentrated animal feeding operations, because the agency says issues with these industries have been largely resolved. Seriously. That will be news to neighbors of drilling, pipelines and animal waste disposal sites.
And the leadership of the EPA wants to turn away from enforcement overall, to encouraging compliance through voluntary measures and “compliance assistance”. Pardon our skepticism here.
And so it goes with what seems to be an ongoing industry takeover of our premier public health agency. First they roll back regulations, then they roll back enforcement so there are fewer consequences for those who put the public’s health at risk, and then they reduce the professional staff so new rules can’t be put back in place.
It is time to stand up and stay STOP. Enough is enough. We need the EPA. And that means we need it to be a vibrant, well-staffed, professional agency. Not a political punching bag or a pinata of goodies for the regulated industry.