U.S. EPA will achieve its goal of bulking up its criminal division by the end of next week, the agency's top cop said yesterday, one week after an environmental watchdog group released a report claiming that EPA's team of agents and docket of criminal cases had both shrunk under the Obama administration.
As part of a budget request submitted earlier this year, EPA said it planned to keep more than 200 criminal investigators on staff. But a Freedom of Information Act inquiry by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed that EPA had an official count of 173 special agents in June -- about 30 fewer than it had in 2003 (E&ENews PM, Sept. 13).
The criminal division should reach the 200 mark by next week, said Cynthia Giles, the agency's assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, during a forum on criminal enforcement sponsored by the American Bar Association and American Law Institute.
Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, described Giles' claim as an effort at "damage control." The watchdog group was only able to find 160 investigators in the agency's official directory in June, suggesting that EPA's estimates may refer to the number of available positions rather than the number of agents that are actually on the job, he told Greenwire.
"We're in the midst of surveying all of the agents, and we're not hearing that there's been a sudden turnaround," Ruch said. If the agency succeeds in growing its staff to 200 next week, he added, "they're going to be setting a land-speed record for bringing 40 agents online."
The watchdog group has recently focused its attention on EPA's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), which prosecutes environmental offenses and refers potential cases to the Department of Justice. Criminal cases are considered a particularly strong deterrent because unlike fines, prison time cannot be passed along to consumers as a cost of doing business.
"That's something that the managers have to take on themselves, and it makes people think twice," Giles said yesterday.
Some data suggest the criminal office has been less active under the Obama administration than it was in the past. The number of referred cases, which peaked at 592 in 1998, has not topped 355 since 2005. Investigators sent 339 cases to DOJ in 2009, agency figures show.
Ruch said the office has a slew of problems, mainly stemming from a lack of focus and dysfunctional management practices. An internal audit of the CID is forthcoming, he said, "and the people we're hearing from are not happy campers about the direction of the program."
Giles said she has decided to focus on "high-impact cases," meaning that the number of referrals might not reflect the office's effectiveness. The enforcement division has a 90 percent conviction rate, she said, and has concluded more than 120 cases this year.
With the agency moving forward on a slew of new regulations, investigators will play a crucial role in compelling people and businesses to follow the rules.
One such priority will be assuring compliance with the agency's new greenhouse gas reporting program, Giles said. Businesses across a variety of industries are now required to maintain emissions data, with their first annual reports due early next year.
Though EPA already runs a variety of reporting programs, the new greenhouse gas rules will create a new enforcement challenge, Giles said.
"The more we rely on monitoring and self-reporting from facilities, the more important it is that we make sure that we're assuring the integrity of those reports," she said.