Executives at Volkswagen must be cursing the bad timing. If only they had been able to keep their emissions cheating scheme quiet for a while longer, they could have avoided a lot of grief. That’s because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement capacity may soon be crippled.
This is a likely consequence of the Trump Administration’s plans, just reported by the Washington Post, to cut the staff of the agency by one-fifth and eliminate dozens of programs. It’s not yet known exactly what functions are being targeted, but cuts of this magnitude will certainly make it more difficult for the EPA to pursue the kind of investigations that led to the filing of civil and criminal charges against VW.
In January, shortly before Trump took office, the company agreed to plead guilty to three federal felony counts and pay a criminal penalty of $2.8 billion along with another $1.5 billion to settle civil claims. VW previously reached a settlement with the EPA and other agencies under which it committed to spend more than $14 billion to buy back cars containing “defeat devices” and undertake projects to mitigate the extra pollution generated by those vehicles.
VW is one of the thousands of polluters whose activities have been thwarted by the EPA. As shown in Violation Tracker, since the beginning of 2010 the agency (on its own or with the Justice Department) has collected more than $43 billion in fines and settlements in more than 15,000 cases. That does not include billions more from companies such as BP in cases in which the EPA joined with other agencies in joint referrals to the DOJ. Apart from VW and BP, here are the biggest EPA penalty cases over the past seven years:
In 2015 a $5 billion settlement with the EPA and the DOJ went into effect under which Anadarko Petroleum agreed to pay for the clean-up of toxic waste sites across the country linked to Tronox Inc., a spinoff of Anadarko’s subsidiary Kerr-McGee.
In 2013 Wisconsin Power and Light Company, a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, agreed to spend over $1 billion on new equipment to substantially reduce air pollution generated by three coal-fired power plants.
In 2013 Transocean agreed to pay a $1 billion civil penalty to the EPA in connection with its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico three years earlier.
In a 2015 settlement with the EPA, fertilizer giant Mosaic agreed to establish a $630 million trust fund to pay for the future closure of and treatment of hazardous wastewater at four facilities in Florida and Louisiana. The company also agreed to spend $170 million on environmental mitigation at its operations.
In 2011 Hovensa, now owned by ArcLight Capital, agreed to spend more than $700 million on new air pollution controls at its massive petroleum refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Not all the companies are from the industrial and energy sectors. Retail behemoth Wal-Mart Stores has had to pay more than $90 million in EPA fines and settlements to resolve cases involving improper disposal of hazardous waste and other violations.
Data collected for an extension of Violation Tracker coverage back an additional ten years to 2000 includes EPA cases with total fines and settlements of more than $20 billion. Among these are a 2007 agreement by utility giant American Electric Power to spend an estimated $4.6 billion to reduce toxic air emissions at its power plants and a $50 million criminal penalty BP paid for environmental violations at its refinery in Texas City, Texas (now owned by Marathon Petroleum) where 15 workers were killed in an explosion in 2005.
These various examples do not include the many Superfund cases brought by EPA against multiple parties in connection with long-term toxic dumping or cases brought against government entities; nor do they include all the work EPA does apart from enforcement.
Trump’s assault on the EPA is based on the once common but now widely debunked notion that there is an inherent conflict between jobs and environmental protection. Today there is greater recognition that workers also need to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and that there are many business and employment opportunities associated with environmental clean-up and sustainable practices.
Decimating the EPA will serve only to empower rogue corporations such as Volkswagen. There is nothing to be gained from making polluters great again.