Environmental prosecution is a partnership between the E.P.A., which investigates misconduct, and the Justice Department, which pursues the civil and criminal lawsuits. Both agencies disputed Mr. Uhlmann’s findings.
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, who heads the environment and natural resources division of the Justice Department, said through a spokeswoman that the article “paints a misleading picture” of the administration’s approach and “confuses quantity for quality.”
He said that while there has been a decline in water pollution cases, the number of pesticide cases has risen by “several hundred percent” with investigations of illegal smuggling and “fraudulent COVID-19 remedies,” and that prosecutors have pursued “large, high-impact cases involving gross violations of our environmental laws,” including major cases involving fraud in auto emissions. He concluded, “Our prosecutors are as busy in this Administration as they were in prior administrations, and our nation’s air and water are the cleanest they have ever been.”
Mr. Uhlmann responded that “the numbers don’t lie,” and noted that 10 defendants were prosecuted for pesticide violations in 2017 and 2018, an increase of just two defendants over 2015 and 2016. If the numbers have grown since then, he said, even a several hundred percent rise “would not offset the far larger decline in Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act prosecutions, both of which are far more significant from an environmental protection standpoint.”
He also said that the median size of fines in general has fallen, and the number of felony prosecutions — a measure of the seriousness of the crimes — has dropped steeply. To Mr. Uhlmann, that means that “pollution prosecutions under President Trump have fallen dramatically from his predecessors, both in terms of quantity and quality.” As for the emissions cases, he noted, those started under the Obama administration.
A spokeswoman for the E.P.A. said that the agency “has reinvigorated its criminal enforcement program” and “reversed the downward trend” in cases. New cases, she said, increased “about 46 percent” between fiscal year 2017 and 2019, and that the agency expects the number of cases opened in fiscal year 2020 “to be more than double the number opened in 2017.”
Mr. Uhlmann said that citing new investigations in 2019 and 2020 does not change the “devastatingly low” number of people charged in the administration’s first two years, especially since “a significant number of investigations never result in criminal charges.”