A Sheep in the Closet: The Erosion of Enforcement at the EPA

This report examines environmental enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) two years into the Trump administration. Based on extensive interviewing with EPA employees and recent retirees as well as in-depth wide-ranging research into EPA data and documents as well as news coverage, we conclude that the EPA is no longer so capable of fulfilling its mission to ensure competent enforcement of federal environmental laws. In place of that “gorilla in the closet” role characterized by its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, it has become more of a sheep in the closet. The EPA’s retreat, which shows little sign of stopping, has all but ensured significant deterioration of our nation’s public health and environment in the years ahead.

Note: The original version of this report was published in November 2018. Much has changed since its first publication, most notably, the release of the EPA’s official enforcement numbers for the fiscal year 2018. As a result, we released in May 2019 an updated report that expands and bolsters our analysis, using a broader range of enforcement metrics, a longer time span, and published numbers that are easy to verify.

What has changed in the updated version? Our original report relied on provisional data from EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Online (ECHO) database because final enforcement numbers were not available at the time. In addition to using provisional data, in our original report we inadvertently undercounted civil case conclusions (legal cases that EPA has resolved) and their associated costs and fines from the ECHO database, which resulted in a slight overstatement of the decline between 2017 and 2018 in these enforcement metrics. We appreciate EPA bringing this to our attention, though as documented further here, this correction does not change our overall finding that EPA enforcement seriously declined. Importantly, our adjusted and newer data all confirm the basic findings and conclusions in the November 2018 report.

In addition to updating and correcting our use of ECHO data, new data allows us to present FY 2018 data in longer-term historical perspective. The published data also allows us to include data not available in ECHO (e.g., criminal cases, fines, sentencing; total inspections; estimates of environmental benefits; civil case initiations). Finally, we have taken this opportunity to simplify some of our analysis, removing complicated breakdowns of civil cases by types of administrative actions (Administrative Compliance Orders, Administrative Penalty Orders, and so on).


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Author(s): Leif Fredrickson, Marianne Sullivan, Christopher Sellers, Jennifer Ohayon, Ellen Kohl, Sarah Lamdan, Alissa Cordner, Alice Hu, Katarzyna Kaczowka, Natalia Navas, Linda Wicks, EDGI
Publication Date: May 31, 2019
Preferred Citation: "A Sheep in the Closet: The Erosion of Enforcement at the EPA," (Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, May 31, 2019)