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Data recently released by the Environmental Protection Agency shows fewer industrial facilities were inspected in 2018 than any time over the past decade. The agency also confirmed a Washington Post report showing that civil penalties dropped to the lowest average level since 1994. This is on the heels of another report that said last year, the EPA generated the fewest new criminal case referrals for prosecution than any year since 1988.

So what does this mean? Why does the EPA need inspections, penalties and prosecutions? And how is the EPA’s role changing under the Trump administration?

On the latest episode of our podcast, Trump on Earth, we hear from Juliet Eilperin, who covers national affairs for The Washington Post and has reported on these issues.

LISTEN to the entire interview:

Here are some highlights from the conversation with Juliet Eilperin:

On why there has been a drop in inspections under the Trump administration:

It’s a little hard to know why because EPA officials are not particularly forthcoming with information about what accounts for some of these trends. They did confirm the numbers. There’s a different story on the criminal side and civil side of enforcement. On the civil side, it appears to reflect the administration’s priority that they are trying to work more collaboratively with companies. They have even changed the names of titles of programs to try to say that this is really about compliance rather than enforcement. They would rather work with companies and try to fix things initially then crack down on them for violating the law.

Even the EPA’s own website talks about the importance of inspections as a key element in enforcement and ensuring that companies are meeting their legal requirements.

There has been a significant drop to roughly 10,600 inspections across the country. That is half the number that EPA conducted at its peak in 2010. Congress has been less generous to EPA in recent years so it does have fewer staffers. But this appears to be a trend that’s accelerated under the Trump administration. So it’s more than just staffing changes.

There were lots of interesting numbers that came out in this data. One is that they’re not initiating as many cases and investigations and they’re also not completing as many cases. That’s all part of this trend. The cases that EPA is bringing against companies is also declining which both shows that relationship and potentially some of the consequences of those actions.

There’s no question that EPA is identifying fewer instances of environmental lawbreaking across the country whether you’re talking about the civil side or the criminal side.

And so the question is, are companies much better actors now than they were a couple of years ago? Now it’s true that to some extent they’re delegating these responsibilities to the states. And they’re relying on companies to self-report and self-audit their operations in a way they didn’t before.

Now can we trust all that information? Certainly it always is helpful to verify that independently, but it’s clear that the stakes for the public are considerable. If there are toxic air emissions that are going into the air at a higher level than what’s required, people aren’t going to see or smell that, but it could still affect their health. And so that’s one of the reasons why you have inspections as part of your enforcement program.”

On the decline of criminal investigations:

Criminal charges reflect intentional wrongdoing. So one incident that listeners might be familiar with is when there was a terrible coal ash spill in North Carolina on the Dan River in 2014. It involved Duke Energy. And what EPA was able to discover is that there had been folks within Duke Energy who had been warning that pipes were corroding and that they needed to be replaced or fixed in order to avert a disaster. That’s criminal negligence.

Another very well known one that EPA successfully pursued in recent years is the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal. These are the kinds of cases that aren’t going to be done by the states. They’re expensive and take tremendous resources and it usually is the federal government that brings those kinds of cases.

What we have seen under Trump is a really steep decline in the number of criminal penalties. When you look at the number of defendants that were charged, the number of years of incarceration — all of that has also declined. And there is a very clear connection to staffing.

For example, under the 1990 Pollution Prosecution Act, the division is supposed to have no fewer than 200 criminal investigators pursuing these cases. In December of 2010, there were 272 at the agency. Right now, it stands at 147.

So there simply aren’t enough people working on criminal cases at the Environmental Protection Agency right now. And that, in part, is translating into a decline in the number of criminal cases that they’re pursuing.”

On delegating more enforcement to states:

There are some [states] that are very interested in enforcing their environmental laws and so you could see more stringent enforcement in some states. But there are others that might not be as aggressive in policing what’s happening in their operations. That’s part of what happens when you delegate to the states.

The Trump administration is a big believer in having the states take more responsibility for some of these functions. It also makes it of course cheaper for the federal government. But then the second question is do these states have the resources and the interest in enforcing the laws the way the federal government does.”

On impacts to public health and the environment:

“I think that it is difficult to tell…you’d really have to look case by case in different communities across the country and see whether there are problem operations and how they’re being enforced.

Most experts across the political spectrum would say that there will be ramifications from fewer inspections, fewer cases, things like that, but it will take time to determine the exact impact.

Also it’s worth noting that for example the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a major settlement with Chrysler…of roughly 305 million dollars in a civil penalty because Fiat Chrysler cheated on its emissions. And in that case, which was initiated under the Obama administration, [Acting EPA Administrator] Andrew Wheeler as well as his counterparts at the Justice Department said that there was more pollution in the air, that leads to heart and lung disease and illness as a result of this cheating. And they were forcing Fiat Chrysler to clean it up. So even some of the top Trump officials would admit that when you have companies cheating, it harms human health and there’s really a consensus about that.”