U.S. EPA Releases Annual Enforcement Statistics

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) recently released its annual environmental enforcement report.  In its report, which covers prosecutions for the 2016-2017 fiscal year (ending September 30th 2017), the U.S. EPA states that nearly $5 billion (U.S.) had been levied out in criminal fines and civil penalties.  It also stated that enforcement actions have also led to the commitment by companies to clean-up contaminated sites across the U.S.

In contrast, Canada does not issue an annual enforcement report.  However, the total sum of announced penalties by the Canadian federal government totaled approximately $15 million in 2017.

The bulk of the monetary fines levied in the U.S. was from the settlement with Volkswagen.  The company agreed to pay $1.45 billion (U.S.) in civil penalties because of its use of illegal software to foil emissions testing.

The U.S. EPA was alerted by an environmental activist group, The International Council on Clean Transportation in 2013 that on-road emission tests of Volkswagen vehicles were dramatically different than off-road test in garages.  The finding led U.S. EPA officials to discover that Volkswagen had installed software in vehicles to shut off the emissions control system during driving and only turned it on during off-road testing.

A worker tests a red 2016 Volkswagen AG Golf TDI emissions certification vehicle on Sept. 22, 2015. (Photo Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)

The $1.45 billion fine levied against Volkswagen still dwarfs the $6 billion penalty paid by BP for the 2010 oil spill from Horizon One oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

In contrast, the largest fine ever meted out in Canada was $3.5 million (Cdn.) to Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC in 2017 wastewater spill at a mine.

Included in the report, was the note of the legal commitment made by companies clean-up sites they had contaminated.  The estimated cost of that clean-ups is $1.2 billion (U.S.).

With respect to jail time for environmental criminals, the U.S. EPA prosecuted individuals and U.S. courts meted out a total of 150 years in jail for persons found guilty of environmental offences.  In contrast, the total jail time Canadian courts meted out for environmental offenders was less than one year.

Critics of the U.S. EPA note that the high level of enforcement actions may not continue.  Critics point to an analysis by the New York Times in late 2017 that concluded that the U.S. EPA under its latest head, Scott Pruitt, has initiated about one-third fewer civil enforcement cases than the number under the previous U.S. EPA director.