The report EPA Enforcement Still Struggling to Recover Under Biden examines the slow to minimal progress the Biden Administration has made restoring the capacity of the EPA to handle enforcement and compliance of our nation’s environmental laws. While showing some recovery, EPA enforcement and compliance has overall been weak and some enforcement measures, such as criminal cases opened and compliance costs, remain among the lowest in decades.
The data used in the comparison are the budget justifications and end-of-year enforcement numbers published by the EPA, along with staff lists obtained through FOIA requests. Sources for this data listed at the end of the report are all available online and are easily verifiable. Our analysis carefully attends to changes in data collection over time, through methodological notes listed with each metric.
Key findings include:
- The Biden Administration has made slow to minimal progress restoring the capacity of the EPA to handle enforcement and compliance of our nation’s environmental laws.
- Adjusting for inflation, the agency’s FY 2022 budget for this work remains nearly unchanged from its lowest levels in recent history, during the Trump years.
- Total enforcement and compliance funding was the second-lowest in the last eleven fiscal years and only 2% more than the nadir in FY 2019.
- Funding for the agency’s main enforcement and compliance programs was the lowest in the last eleven years, 29% below the peak in FY 2011, 14% lower than FY 2016, and even 2% lower than in FY 2019.
- While funding for forensic support and hazardous waste and Superfund enforcement has begun to recover, support for these programs remained 8% and 14% lower than in FY 2016, respectively, and 32% and 36% off from their eleven-year peaks in FY 2011.
- FY 2022 staffing for enforcement and compliance work has made only slight gains at best.
- Total authorized workyears (a measure of staff allocation) for enforcement and compliance are up only 4% from their eleven-year nadir in FY 2020, and remain 11% lower than in FY 2016 and 32% lower than in FY 2012.
- Authorized workyears for civil enforcement and compliance monitoring showed the least gains, up only 2% and 5% from their eleven-year nadirs (both in FY 2020), and remaining 14% and 11% off from FY 2016 and a quarter and a third of their FY 2011 peaks, respectively.
- Authorized workyears for criminal enforcement showed the biggest gains, up 14% from the decade’s low in FY 2018 and also 4% more than in FY 2016, though still 14% off their eleven-year peak (FY 2011).
- Staff lists (“On-boards”) for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance showed a decline of 17% since early 2017 and a loss of .6% since early 2020, suggesting a dire picture.
- Taken as a whole, the FY 2022 performance of enforcement and compliance at the EPA, as indicated by major metrics such as inspections, civil cases, criminal cases, defendants, sentencing, and compliance costs, while showing some recovery from the lowest recorded levels in decades, still indicates weak enforcement.
- EPA’s most positive results for FY 2022 are its civil and especially its criminal fines. However, these numbers stand out not because they are so historically high but because they are not exceptionally low. Compared to the past three decades, civil fines remain far below the average and only 88% of the median. Criminal fines for FY 2022 are more impressive, at 84% of the average and 154% of the median and tenth highest of the past 28 years.
- Other major enforcement measures, however, remain among the lowest in decades.
- Inspections/Evaluations have recovered somewhat, with totals now reaching their historic range between 1994 and 2016. However, yearly totals remain just over two-thirds of the average and mean for that period, and the rapidly growing reliance on “off-site compliance monitoring” activities (ramped up during the pandemic to protect EPA staff) may have distorted the extent of recovery.
- Civil case initiations are the third lowest since 1982.
- EPA no longer reports figures for the most important civil case initiations, civil judicial referrals, to the Department of Justice.
- Civil case conclusions, measured since 1994, were the second lowest on record in FY 2022. The total remains about half the average and median for 1994 – 2016.
- Criminal cases opened were the second lowest since 1992 (over 25 years) and criminal defendants charged were the fourth lowest in more than 25 years.
- Years sentenced for criminal cases hit a new low in FY 2022 and were the lowest since 1989.
- Compliance costs (injunctive relief) were the second lowest since 2003 (20 years). FY 2022 compliance costs were 45% of the average, and 57% of the median, of annual costs from 1994 – 2016.
CONTACT: Report authors are available for interview. To set up media interviews or for other inquiries, please contact Kelly Wilkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.