WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers will grill the Environmental Protection Agency’s top pollution enforcement official on Tuesday after the agency’s recent annual report showed a big decline in civil penalties and site inspections.
The hearing comes as Democrats, now in control of Congress after last November’s elections, heap scrutiny on the Trump administration over its efforts to unwind environmental regulation to favor business.
The EPA’s annual report bit.ly/2Sn0z6h released earlier this month showed it leveled $69 million in civil penalties against polluters and conducted 10,612 site inspections in the 2018 fiscal year, the lowest in at least a decade for both measures.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone said the Democrats’ first oversight hearing on EPA enforcement will focus on how low staffing in the agency’s compliance division was impacting the agency.
“The problem is the Trump administration has actually diminished the number of staff people that work at EPA that do enforcement, and this results in less protection of people’s health and safety and less protection of the environment,” Pallone said in a video announcing the hearing.
The EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance saw a net loss of 131 full-time employees, 17.8 percent of its staff, over the last two years, according to EPA data.
Susan Bodine, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said last month that EPA was using “all the tools at its disposal” to deter misconduct by polluters. She will testify at Tuesday’s hearing.
An EPA official did not provide further comment.
The Environmental Integrity Project, led by former EPA civil enforcement director Eric Schaeffer, said the decline in enforcement and inspections posed a disproportionate threat to poor communities located near big infrastructure like refineries and power plants.
“Those cutbacks are leaving communities – including those with high poverty levels and African-American or Latino neighborhoods – exposed to public health risks, while letting polluters off the hook for serious violations of the law,” Schaeffer said. He will also testify at the hearing on Tuesday.
Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Lisa Shumaker