EPA’s enforcement of environmental laws was on the rise again this year, although not yet reaching the highs the agency attained in cracking down on polluters over the past decade.
EPA released its fiscal 2023 results for enforcement and compliance Monday, touting its focus on pollution long burdening marginalized communities across the country. Under the Biden administration, the agency has vowed to rebuild its enforcement program and broaden its scope after inspections as well as civil and criminal investigations tumbled during years of neglect.
Those metrics increased this year as EPA brought on new staff and a renewed focus in championing environmental justice.
Overall, EPA opened 199 criminal cases in fiscal 2023. That is a spike of 70 percent over the previous year and its highest total since fiscal 2020, according to data released by the agency.
In addition, EPA initiated 1,751 civil enforcement actions, nearly a hundred more than the year before and its most in a year since 2018. And at over 150 more than fiscal 2022, the agency reached 1,791 civil settlements, with 55 percent of those cases centering on facilities in communities with “potential [environmental justice] concerns.”
Inspections climbed this year as well to 7,742, a more than 30 percent increase from fiscal 2022. More than 60 percent of those fiscal 2023 inspections were at facilities affecting communities with potential environmental justice concerns, surpassing the agency’s own goals.
Yet overall compliance monitoring was down in fiscal 2023. EPA credited that to the agency shifting back to on-site inspections, which take more time than offsite monitoring.
The agency’s boosted enforcement activity also juiced cash coming back from polluters. EPA brought in over $700 million in penalties, fines and restitution from environmental law violators in fiscal 2023, a 57 percent increase from the prior year.
“While our work is not complete, EPA’s revitalized enforcement program is making a positive difference in communities across America, particularly for people living in underserved and overburdened communities that for too long have borne the brunt of pollution,” said David Uhlmann, head of the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, in a statement.
Uhlmann added, “From helping ensure that our children can drink safe water to improving the air we all breathe, EPA is delivering on the promise of America’s environmental laws.”
President Joe Biden’s effort to revamp the EPA enforcement program has stalled at times. The Senate took more than two years to confirm Uhlmann as the program’s assistant administrator while environmentalists spotlighted sinking enforcement figures during the first years of the Biden administration.
But EPA’s enforcement office is now staffing up. The agency added roughly 300 positions to the program in fiscal 2023 after it underwent a decade of budget cuts and lost about 950 jobs, according to the agency.
The enforcement office has taken on more as well under the administration.
In August this year, EPA announced six national enforcement initiatives for fiscal 2024 through 2027. It added two areas for investigators to focus on: mitigating climate change and addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the “forever chemicals” responsible for widespread contamination.
At the time, Uhlmann said those initiatives address “21st-century environmental problems.”
“Working closely with our state partners, EPA enforcement efforts will mitigate climate change and limit exposure to the scourge of PFAS contamination, while addressing the reality that, for too long in the United States, the worst effects of pollution have plagued overburdened communities,” Uhlmann said.