Both civil and criminal penalties for breaking federal environmental laws have dropped significantly since President Bush took office, according to Environmental Protection Agency data released Thursday.
But at the same time, the EPA forced companies to spend more to clean up their pollution in the last two years than in the final three years of the Clinton administration.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who released the data without the EPA's consent, focused on the penalties paid by industry for breaking environmental laws. Civil penalties fell by nearly half to $55 million, according to the EPA data, and criminal penalties dropped by more than one-third to $62 million.
For environmentalists and some congressional Democrats who have criticized the Bush administration for being soft on enforcing environmental laws, the data provided the smoking gun they have been looking for.
"The numbers show an extremely disturbing trend towards weaker enforcement over the last two years," said Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Bush administration countered that the data reflected the normal fluctuations that depend on what cases are settled or otherwise resolved in a particular year.
John Peter Suarez, assistant EPA administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, said proof of the agency's strong enforcement efforts during the Bush administration could be found in the record amounts of money it has forced industry to spend to either stop polluting or clean up its messes.
The agency forced companies to spend about $8.4 million in the first two years of the Bush administration, against slightly less than $7 million over the last three years of the Clinton administration.
"We're going after companies that need to spend significant amounts of money to clean up," Suarez said.
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman has repeatedly stressed that fines and penalties are not the appropriate measure of an effective environmental policy.
"The way to measure the success of any environmental undertaking is [whether] the environment is getting better -- is the air cleaner, the water purer, the land better protected -- not just how many fines, fees and penalties are getting collected," Whitman said in a recent interview.
Environmentalists said that the more telling number was the 261 million pounds of pollution expected to be cleaned up as a result of enforcement in fiscal 2002, down from 335 million in Clinton's last year in office.
However, in Bush's first year, the comparable figure was 660 million.
The EPA also announced Thursday that it would ask Congress for $503 million for environmental enforcement for fiscal 2004, up by $21 million from the agency's request for fiscal 2003. Although fiscal 2003 is nearly four months old, Congress has yet to appropriate funding for the EPA.
Environmentalists and EPA watchdogs say the agency has de-emphasized enforcement during the last two years by reducing staff by 210 positions, or about 7%. The number of EPA inspections also has dropped significantly under the Bush administration, from 21,417 in fiscal 2000 to 17,688 in fiscal 2002.
"It's been both a change in resources and a change in philosophy," said Wesley Warren, a budget specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.
Even the administration's own budget documents from last year projected a significant drop in the amount of pollution that would be cut through enforcement actions.
"It should be no surprise," Warren said. "In their own budget documents, they said they were going to do fewer inspections, file fewer lawsuits and allow pollution to go up."