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CWA Criminal Enforcement Numbers Down Under Current Administration

Updated: Oct 30

Professor David Uhlmann of the University of Michigan recently published a paper entitled, "New Environmental Crimes Project Data Shows That Pollution Prosecutions Plummeted During the First Two Years of the Trump Administration." In his paper, he looks at criminal enforcement data released by EPA and shows that prosecutions are way down during the first two years of the Trump administration. The average number of cases per year for Bush and Obama for all statutes were 87.8 and 76.6, respectively. Trump's first two years were 38.


The CWA has seen particularly large reductions in cases. Bush and Obama charged on average 53.5 and 44.5 defendants per year under the CWA. For Trump it is 13. That's a 76% decrease from the second term of the Bush administration. Trump charged 17 defendants in 2017, but only 9 in 2018. These are historically low numbers. Uhlmann points out that the CWA is one of the easiest statutes to enforcement criminally because of the clear prohibition of discharging without a permit.


He opines that jurisdictional determinations may be playing a role in the large reduction of cases. If the CWA doesn't apply, there is no crime for the discharge. It's also possible that the uncertainty around jurisdiction has kept prosecutors from charging cases. Either way, the numbers tell a story.


I suspect that jurisdiction is playing a role, but I suspect the larger motivation behind the big reduction in cases is simply the pro-industry stance this administration has openly championed. I would like to see some hard research on water quality impacts of these policies. Given how long it takes for policy changes to show results in the water column and the lag time in collecting the data, it may take years to know the answer to that question.


Here's a link to the paper:

Michigan analysis of Trump EPA enforceme
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Download • 573KB


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