Wanted: The Big Fish

In its waning days, the Bush Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency wants us to think that it is a serious crime-fighting organization. The agency’s enforcement division recently announced plans to “enlist the public in tracking down fugitives accused of violating environmental laws and evading arrest.” The innovation is a web page called EPA Fugitives, an online version of the wanted posters traditionally displayed in post offices.

There’s nothing wrong with such an initiative, but the two dozen culprits featured on the site are all decidedly small fish. Some are charged with serious offenses such as the dumping of hazardous wastes, while others are accused of less than monumental crimes such as illegally importing automobiles that don’t meet emissions standards or “aiding and abetting false entries into an Oil Record Book” of a ship.

Where is the agency’s zeal for highlighting the environmental crimes of large corporations? It’s been greatly diminished amid a general downplaying of enforcement activity. Last year the Environmental Integrity Project put out a report showing a sharp decline in enforcement efforts during the Bush Administration. “The bad news here is that it now costs less to pollute,” EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said at the time.

This is not to say that the EPA has let large corporations entirely off the hook. In fact, just this week the agency announced a settlement with Exxon Mobil under which the oil giant will pay $6.1 million in civil penalties for violating the terms of a 2005 consent decree concerning air pollution caused by the company’s refineries in Texas, California and Louisiana.

It apparently takes truly brazen actions such as those of Exxon to trigger real action by the EPA against a big company (though a $6 million fine is not much of a hardship for a company currently earning about $5 billion a month). If you look at the archive of the agency’s press releases on enforcement actions, the offending parties are most often small firms and individuals.

Perhaps the Obama Administration’s EPA should consider a new web page of its own: a rogue’s gallery of the large corporations that are doing the most to pollute the environment and exacerbate the climate crisis.

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