Report: Midwest Water Pollution Up As EPA Enforcement Goes Down

Apr 20, 2020

The view of U.S. Steel from Indiana Dunes National Park. The facility had at least four spills into Lake Michigan waterways last year.
Credit Tyler Lake / WFIU/WTIU

The number of industrial facilities reporting water pollution violations in the Midwest has spiked since 2017. A new report shows it could be due to a decline in enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency. 

In some ways, the data in the report is nothing new. EPA’s enforcement budget and staff have been going down for nearly a decade. But in the past few years, EPA is also spending less of that budget.

Last year, according to the report, EPA spent $16 million less on enforcement than what Congress appropriated. Howard Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which compiled the report.

“When we're driving on the highway, if we know that there isn’t a state trooper there somewhere over the ridge with that radar gun out there, people will just tend to speed some more,” he says. 

Learner says the agency is also putting more responsibility on already cash-strapped state environmental agencies like the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

"We're cutting the federal environmental enforcement. We expect the states to do it, but we're cutting the budget for the states. That doesn't work,” he says.

Since 2016, the Midwest region of the EPA, Region 5, has opened fewer enforcement cases against polluters. In a statement, officials with the agency said it is concerned with “outcomes and not outputs” — it doesn’t set quotas for enforcement cases.

Contact Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.