WASHINGTON — During the first three years of the Bush administration, the number of civil lawsuits that the federal government filed against polluters dropped by 75% compared with the last three years of the Clinton administration, an environmental group reported Tuesday.
Eric Schaeffer, director of the group that compiled the data, said they showed that the administration had been weak on enforcing anti-pollution laws.
Bush administration officials defended their record, saying that the real measure of effectiveness should be whether pollution was being reduced, not the quantity of lawsuits. They said they has emphasized negotiated settlements as a speedier alternative to protracted litigation.
And they said that new anti-pollution rules proposed by the administration would bring more improvements in air quality than would legal action.
The number of lawsuits filed over alleged pollution-law violations dropped from 152 in the three years ended in January 2001 to 36 in the three years ended in January 2004, according to EPA data analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental watchdog group.
Schaeffer, who left his job as the head of the EPA enforcement office almost three years ago to protest what he considered the Bush administration's lax approach to cracking down on polluters, said the data showed that "my concerns were, unfortunately, justified."
But Tom Skinner, acting assistant EPA administrator in charge of enforcement, called Schaeffer's analysis "completely misleading."
"The fundamentally flawed premise seems to be that filing cases in and of themselves are beneficial to the environment," Skinner said.
Schaeffer said the administration had been particularly easy on energy companies, the nation's biggest polluters. The Justice Department filed three new lawsuits against power companies, oil companies and pipelines during the first three years of the Bush administration, compared with 28 such suits filed in the last three years of the Clinton administration, according to Schaeffer's report.
"If you're a big energy company, you're basically on holiday from enforcement," Schaeffer said.
Skinner disputed that assertion, saying the Bush administration had been busy seeking settlements in enforcement actions against refineries rather than filing lawsuits. Settlements reached so far require that new pollution controls be installed on 40% of the nation's refineries.
The administration has filed new lawsuits against coal-fired power plants for Clean Air Act violations, but most of its effort has been focused on settling or bringing to court lawsuits filed during the Clinton administration, Skinner said.
"We've got three trials in the next 12 months. My idea of a vacation is not sitting in trial with billions of dollars at stake," Skinner said.
Schaeffer charged that the administration was letting polluters off the hook by not filing lawsuits.
In a widely reported move last November, the EPA told its regional offices to drop enforcement actions against dozens of coal-fired power plants that were under investigation for violating the Clean Air Act.
One of those plants was Allegheny Energy Inc.'s Hatfield's Ferry power plant in western Pennsylvania, near the home of Charlotte O'Rourke, a retired accountant who appeared at a news briefing here on the environmental group study.
O'Rourke told reporters that pollution from the power plant rains down on her neighborhood so heavily that sometimes the power company offers to pay to have residents' cars washed.
Her husband died of renal cell carcinoma at the age of 57, and she believes he is one of many people in her community who became sick or died of diseases caused by the pollution. She and her husband built their house in Masontown, Pa., 30 years ago, about the time the Hatfield's Ferry plant was constructed.
"You really don't have to be a scientist to put two and two together," she said. "Why doesn't our government do something about it?"
Skinner said he was not permitted to talk about ongoing enforcement actions, but said it "may not be true" that the government dropped its investigation against Allegheny Energy.
Representatives of the utility industry agreed with the administration assertion that its regulatory proposals stand to cut more emissions faster than legal action could.
"The emissions cuts achieved through EPA's new rules will be steeper and be achieved faster than are possible through" Clean Air Act lawsuits, said Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the main trade group for electric utility generators.
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Civil lawsuits filed by the federal government against companies accused of pollution law violations have declined substantially from the Clinton to Bush administrations:
Clean Air Act
Clean Water Act
Hazardous waste law
Safe Drinking Water Act
* Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
Note: Time periods are for three years, ending Jan. 19, 2001 (Clinton) and Jan. 19, 2004 (Bush)
Source: Environmental Integrity Project