Top EPA official in New England resigns

Published February 1, 2000

The sudden resignation of EPA Region I Administrator John P. DeVillars has sparked speculation within the agency and in the media that his departure could be related to widespread reports of enforcement problems in EPA’s Boston office.

DeVillars’ resignation was made public in mid-November, just days before the Boston Globe reported that he had become personally involved in cases where members of Congress or their staff have lobbied EPA, apparently with some success, to soften enforcement action against certain companies. According to the Globe (November 16), in at least two cases, the New England EPA appears to have violated agency rules designed to prevent the appearance of favoritism in enforcing environmental laws.

The revelations of wrongdoing by EPA officials in Region I are contained in a landmark four-part series, “Environmental Injustice: Government As Polluter,” by reporter David Armstrong, which ran in the Globe November 14 – 17.

On November 10, the Hartford Courant, in an article on DeVillars’ resignation, reported that EPA’s Inspector General (IG) was preparing a report on the situation in Region I. Two days later, the Connecticut paper corrected its story, saying that, according to EPA sources in Washington, no “report” was being prepared. EPA has neither confirmed nor denied that an IG investigation is underway.

Traditionally, the IG doesn’t write a report until an investigation has been completed. Moreover, sources at the agency tell Environment News that DeVillars’ resignation is directly tied to allegations of enforcement irregularities in Region I.

Easy on some, tough on others

For years, it has been an open secret that nowhere is EPA’s enforcement of environmental statutes more uneven than in its New England office. With more than its share of aging or abandoned industrial facilities, New England, and particularly Massachusetts, should make for easy pickings for committed enforcement officials. But people familiar with the breadth and depth of environmental problems there agree that rigorously enforcing the letter of the law in Massachusetts would have such devastating economic consequences that no such crackdown has taken place.

According to information obtained by the Globe, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom of the 90 federal districts in both the number of environmental cases referred for prosecution and the number of cases prosecuted. From 1993 through 1998, Massachusetts prosecuted environmental crimes at a rate one-fifth the national average, the paper reported.

“The 13 criminal agents assigned to the New England office of the EPA ranked last in the country for the number of cases initiated last year–an average of 2.9 cases per agent as compared to 4.4 cases nationally and as high as 6.3 in the San Francisco region,” the Globe found. “The average number of criminal referrals developed by the office was also well below the national average.”

What’s more, between 1996 and 1998, Massachusetts produced fewer environmental enforcement actions per-capita than the rest of the country, according to EPA statistics. “The New England area has 7 percent of the country’s enforcement personnel, but accounts for only 3 percent of civil penalties,” the Globe reported.

But if EPA’s enforcement of environmental laws in New England has been lax in many cases, this has not kept the agency from bullying small businesses as a way of showing it’s doing its job. The practice is known as “bean-counting” in EPA enforcement circles: Small businesses, cited for what are often mere paperwork violations, are “beaned” by enforcement officials eager to add to the number of cases they have brought against the entities they regulate.

Gun-toting EPA agents

EPA’s enforcement efforts are sometimes so inept as to be comical. An EPA brochure extolling the virtues of its criminal investigation division contains no fewer than three photographs of agents brandishing semiautomatic handguns in the firing position. While pictures of gun-toting EPA agents may give the appearance of an aggressive force, the statistics cited earlier tell another story. There are some 200 such agents working around the country, and their performance has met with mixed reviews. While some agents appear to have shown professionalism in pursuing their objectives, others have been roundly criticized for bullying and general incompetence.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-New York) turned to EPA for assistance in investigating contamination of drinking wells in Beekman, New York. His assessment:

“It was the carelessness, the unprofessionalism, the lack of attention to detail, lack of communication. The way they carried out their work was absolutely astonishing in their ineptitude,” he told the Globe. “There ought to be more uniformity in approaches . . . adhering to a high level of professional standards. This is important police work.”

In one celebrated case that came to light in the months preceding DeVillars’ resignation, EPA agents stand accused of manufacturing and withholding evidence in a case they had brought against a small business owner in Massachusetts. Among other things, EPA agents appear to have altered test results to show that the businessman had violated the Clean Water Act (CWA). By changing a “7” to a “4,” in measuring the pH (the acidic level of water), agents were able to “show” that the business owner was in violation of the CWA, the Globe reported. The test results were later thrown out by a district court judge.

That such revelations would be printed in the liberal Boston Globe hit EPA like a bombshell. The agency has greeted the series with silence, hoping the issue will go away. It may not. There are already rumblings on Capitol Hill, even among Democrats, that hearings into EPA’s enforcement activities should be held next year.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.