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ENERGY-POLICY

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the White House on July 18.

WASHINGTON — Under President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency inspected fewer industrial facilities during 2018 than at any time over the past decade, according to data released by the agency Friday.

The sharp drop in inspections and evaluations last fiscal year — to roughly 10,600 — is only half the number EPA conducted at its peak in 2010, and continues a downward trend that began in 2012. Other enforcement activities at EPA experienced similar declines, according to EPA figures: The number of civil cases the division started and completed in 2018 hit a 10-year low, and the $69 million in civil penalties it leveled represents the lowest in nearly a quarter-century.

The agency relies on inspections of manufacturing facilities, oil and gas operations, and power plants to identify and crack down on polluters across the country. Steep budget cuts in recent years have led to a modest decline in these activities since 2012. But that trend has accelerated since Trump took office, in part because EPA's leadership has said it can clean up the environment more effectively by cooperating with industry to improve the private sector's performance.

In a statement Friday, Susan Bodine, EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said that the agency had made progress in cleaning up the air Americans breathe and the water they drink, in part by working alongside those it regulates.

"A strong enforcement and compliance assurance program is essential to achieving positive public health and environmental outcomes," Bodine said.

On its own website, however, EPA emphasizes the importance of conducting regular inspections. "Inspections are an integral part of EPA's compliance monitoring programs," the site reads. "They are an important tool for officially assessing compliance with environmental regulations and requirements."

EPA said it had compelled companies to invest $4 billion to control pollution and comply with the law - an amount that also was the lowest in a decade, according to the agency's figures. Officials also said they had reduced lead exposure through 140 enforcement actions against renovation contractors, landlords, property managers, Realtors and others.

But several experts said the agency's own numbers showed how the administration had scaled back its efforts to identify and penalize those violating the nation's bedrock environmental laws. Matthew Thurlow, a partner at Baker Hostetler who litigated environmental enforcement cases at the Justice Department between 2008 and 2011, said that the dramatic decline means that some wrongdoing may go unnoticed.

"You have to have inspections and evaluations in order to support civil enforcement," he said. "Since you're doing fewer inspections and evaluations, there are less violations that you're finding, and less cases being brought."

"There's a long-term trend here," Thurlow said, noting that the push to have companies audit their own operations began under the Obama administration. "The Trump administration is obviously accelerating things and deferring to the states.

Gerry OBrien, Editor