EPA Adds Agents to Guard Pruitt, While Fewer Fighting Crimes

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By Renee Schoof

The EPA has 151 federal law enforcement officials working environmental crimes cases—49 short of the number set by a 1990 law—and there is no indication their ranks will increase.

The only uptick in the number of special agents are those who protect Administrator Scott Pruitt around-the-clock, including when he goes home on weekends to Tulsa, Okla. Concerns about criminal division staffing came up in June when the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement office asked for an exception to a hiring freeze in order to hire more agents for the protective services detail so that it could stop redeploying agents from the crimes beat to cover it, a letter obtained by Bloomberg BNA through a Freedom of Information Act request shows.

“Continuing to utilize other [Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training] criminal investigators to help manage this work load is pulling them away from their core mission of investigating environmental crimes in furtherance of the Agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment,” Lawrence Starfield, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance, said to the EPA’s acting Deputy Administrator Michael Flynn in a June memo.

Flynn signed the memo, indicating approval for hiring the protective services agents, but the number of hires was redacted. The agency told Bloomberg BNA, however, it has 151 agents working on criminal cases, not including those assigned to protect Pruitt, down from 157 last year. The number of the EPA’s criminal investigators has been in decline since the early years of the George W. Bush administration and has remained under the 200 minimum set by the 1990 Pollution Prosecution Act since 2004, numbers separately provided by the agency show.

Assistance or Enforcement?

Views differ on the significance of having fewer EPA criminal investigators, depending on whether observers think the agency either should focus more on helping companies comply with environmental regulations or on pursuing civil or criminal enforcement. Fewer agents typically means fewer environmental cases are pursued. One former EPA official said the number of open criminal investigations was 700 to 800 four years ago, but dropped below 500 cases last year. The declines in workforce and active cases coincide with EPA budget reductions. The EPA had 205 special agents on the environmental crime beat in 2003, the last time this number was at or above 200, the level set in the 1990 law. The number of environmental law enforcement agents dropped to 180 in 2008 at the end of the Bush administration and to 154 in 2015 and 157 in 2016 in the final years of the Obama administration.

Asked if Pruitt believed that 151 EPA special agents were enough, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told Bloomberg BNA in an email that he “is committed to working with law enforcement partners and the Department of Justice to punish criminals. The change in the number of agents has been ongoing since 2003, but has not stopped EPA’s criminal enforcement program from maintaining a conviction rate of over 90 percent.”

Bowman also said she could not say how many agents were guarding Pruitt because that would disclose law enforcement techniques or guidelines, or “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.”

Pruitt has protection at all times, including when he goes home on weekends to Tulsa. Previous administrators typically did not have around-the-clock security. The memo requesting additional agents for the protection detail did not specify any particular threat, but instead mentioned potential ones such as “fire, natural disasters, active shooters, medical emergencies and disorders caused by civil disobedience.” Flynn signed the memo, indicating his approval.

The EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division special agents are law enforcement officers who work on major cases and in collaboration with state environmental agencies. EPA special agents investigate the most egregious violations of environmental laws that pose significant threats to health and the environment, such as major discharges of polluted water into rivers or selling fraudulent biodiesel credits in the renewable fuel program.

For a country of 320 million people, “200 agents doesn’t seem like a lot, especially when you consider that most state environmental agencies don’t have a criminal enforcement program,” Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement chief who now directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, told Bloomberg BNA.

Former Trump transition team member David Schnare, who earlier worked for the EPA as an environmental attorney, said he was not concerned with the decline.

“The fact is, states don’t do [environmental] criminal enforcement very often. But they don’t need to if they do their civil enforcement aggressively, which they do,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

—With assistance from Brian Dabbs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Renee Schoof in Washington at rschoof@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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