NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Environmental Enforcement Is Down, So Is Pollution

August 1, 2000

Enforcement of environmental laws is way down in the U.S., says Gregg Easterbrook, for good reason: Pollution is declining.

  • In 1997 and 1998, only 36 percent of the 227 industrial facilities caught in "significant" violations of the Clean Air Act were fined, according to the Environmental Working Group.
  • Several states, among them Alaska, Idaho, and Washington, are far behind in their obligation to review environmental permits.
  • "Over the past five years inspections, referrals for civil or criminal prosecution, and sanctions -- including fines -- have dropped in almost every state," writes Robert Worth in the Washington Monthly.

American environmental indicators have been improving for years, says Easterbrook. In the past decade, for example, all pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act have declined nationally.

  • Airborne lead concentrations fell 56 percent in the 1990s, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions decreased 39 percent, soot emissions fell 25 percent and nitrogen dioxide dropped 14 percent.
  • Furthermore, ground-level ozone fell four percent, even as the consumption of gasoline, the primary cause of urban ozone, has skyrocketed.

U.S. water is cleaner as well:

  • The proportion of lakes and rivers classified as "safe for fishing and swimming," about one-third in 1970, is up to about two-thirds.
  • Toxic emissions declined 44 percent in the last decade, even as domestic petrochemical manufacturing rose.

Some environmental lobbies are upset at the enforcement numbers, which reflect the fact that many regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have shifted from lawsuits and threats to "compliance assistance," in which they work with industry to help it obey rules. Once there is litigation, environmental organizations can become parties to the suit; with the cooperative approach, environmental groups are cut out of the loop.

Source: Gregg Easterbrook, "Enviros' bad math. Sunny Side Up," New Republic, June 19, 2000.


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