EPA is hiding even more from the public than we thought as it guts regulations


A new report from the EPA's inspector general shows that the agency did a great job killing several environmental rules — but didn't do so hot with letting the public know.

When Trump took office, he issued an absurd executive order that required government agencies to cut two regulations for every regulation they passed. It turns out that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did an excellent job at cutting regulations but at the expense of transparency about its actions.

In other words, the EPA's actions were well in keeping with the Trump administration's overall philosophy: Slash first, explain later — or never.

The information comes from the office of the EPA's inspector general — the agency's internal oversight body. In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the agency saved substantial money by cutting regulations. In 2017, they cut 16 major relations and added only one. In 2018, they got rid of 10 regulations and added three new ones. In 2017, the agency banked $21.5 million in cost savings. That jumped to $75.1 million in 2018.

But at what real cost?

The inspector general's report found that the agency saved money by delaying implementation of specific rules, such as tightening requirements governing the accidental release of chemicals that harm clean air. They also rolled back standards covering when industries had to provide reports about mercury and air toxicity. They scrapped a rule that information about hazardous waste exports and imports be posted on the internet.

It's a given that refusing to regulate the industries it is charged with regulating will save the EPA money, but that doesn't mean it is a sound way to go about things.

More important, though, the inspector general reported that the EPA did all this without any real transparency about its actions. The watchdog concluded the public couldn't keep track of the shuffle and repeal of regulatory actions because the EPA's website isn't at all clear about what's happening. While the EPA's website touts its deregulation "accomplishments," it fails to contain information about regulatory actions in progress. Instead, it shunts readers to an entirely different government-wide webpage where much of the info about the EPA rollbacks was just plain wrong.

The process is so opaque that even some EPA employees didn't know what was happening. Staff members told the inspector general they didn't know the status of all of the executive order recommendations and didn't get feedback on deregulatory actions they had proposed.

A lot of the cost savings also seem paltry when stacked against the fact the agency has drastically curtailed the fines it imposes on polluters. In July 2016, the agency finalized an action to freeze penalties against the automobile industry for failing to meet fuel standards. That could lead to a drop of as much as $1 billion in fines collected. In its 2018 enforcement report, the EPA said it had collected $88 million in criminal fines, down a staggering amount from $3 billion the previous year, when some Obama-era standards remained. There's a similar drop for civil penalties.

In short, under Trump, the EPA has gotten less transparent about what it is doing, but when we do get a glimpse, what we see is an agency that has abdicated its duty to regulate polluters.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.