Report: EPA fails to enforce 'major' pollution crime, including 2 Minn. incidents

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The Environmental Protection Agency Building is shown in Washington.
Tthe Environmental Protection Agency Building is shown in Washington.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency is letting an increasing number of polluters get away with breaking the law while exposing people nationwide to health risks — including two "major violations" in Minnesota — a nonpartisan report released Tuesday found.

The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project's report analyzed 20 years of EPA data and court records. It found the agency charged a historically low number of polluters in crimes in the 2018 fiscal year and, as a result, violators paid less in fines for cleanup.

President Trump's priorities and the EPA's declining funding were cited as the main factors behind the slipping environmental law enforcement, according to the EIP report.

"EPA's enforcement workforce has been shrinking for years, but the Trump Administration wants to cut it back even further," Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA official and current EIP executive director, said in a statement. "Those cutbacks are leaving communities — including those with high poverty levels and African-American or Latino neighborhoods — exposed to public health risks, while letting polluters off the hook for serious violations of the law."

Part of EPA's enforcement efforts come from regional offices. Minnesota is in Region 5, along with other Great Lakes states.

Cathy Stepp, who has led the Region 5 office since December 2017, is known among environmentalists as a lax enforcer of pollution laws. When she led the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, environmental enforcement actions declined and staffing levels fell.

Stepp's office did not respond to requests for comment.

At the national level, the EPA has been rolling back regulations and subject to much criticism. Trump's first EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, resigned following a tenure riddled with scandal. Then, Trump made the controversial appointment of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to succeed Pruitt.

Below are the two Minnesota incidents the EIP describes as "major violations still waiting for enforcement" by the EPA:

An iron ore plant in Forbes

The EIP says United Taconite's iron ore plant received an EPA notice in 2014 alleging multiple violations of the Clean Air Act.

Furnaces for baking iron ore pellets released soot, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the air, bypassing pollution control systems. Large amounts of airborne fine-particle pollution can cause cancer, respiratory illness and heart problems, among other ailments.

The report says Cleveland-Cliffs, United Taconite's owner, contacted EIP before its report published to say it had agreed to pay the EPA $60,000 in civil penalties and finish another $150,000 in projects to address the violations.

The company had previously paid a $50,000 state fine for dust violations, too.

A smelter in Eagan

Gopher Resource's lead smelter spewed illegal amounts of dangerous air pollution into an area where thousands of people live, the EIP found.

The pollutants included lead, as well as toxic dioxins and furans. dioxins The EPA gave Gopher Resource a violation notice in 2015.

MPR News has reached out to Cleveland-Cliffs and Gopher Resource for comment and will update this story as necessary.

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