CHICAGO — Years before President Donald Trump’s industry-backed appointees began rolling back enforcement of environmental laws, Illinois had begun shedding inspectors and slowing the policing of air and water pollution.
A pair of new reports document how funding for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency steadily declined during the past decade, dropping by more than 25% in inflation-adjusted dollars as the agency’s responsibilities expanded and became more complex.
Illinois also cut its environmental agency’s workforce by 38% during the same period — more than any other state.
With a smaller staff and less money, the state agency has failed repeatedly to identify hazards to public health and hold polluters accountable, said Eric Schaeffer, a former top U.S. EPA enforcement official who directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project and compiled one of the reports.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker blasted the new rules, calling them “cruel” and suggesting they are being enacted for other political purposes
In several cases, federal officials have stepped in to address some of the state’s biggest environmental problems. But federal enforcement regionally and nationally has declined sharply since Trump took office in 2017, according to records provided by the union for U.S. EPA workers.
Schaeffer and two former Illinois EPA directors urged Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to tweak the way the state agency is funded. Since 2003, when lawmakers stopped sharing a portion of the state’s general fund with the agency, it has relied largely on federal payments and permit fees that aren’t adjusted to keep pace with inflation or the rising cost of employee pensions and health care.
“We’re jeopardizing the health and safety of Illinois citizens and the economic well-being of its businesses that rely on the Illinois EPA for timely permits and even-handed enforcement,” said Mary Gade, who led the agency under former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and later served as the regional U.S. EPA administrator under President George W. Bush.
Illinois ranks among the top 10 states for the amount of industrial air and water pollution released into the environment each year, according to federal records. Federal data also show that Illinoisans face some of the highest risks in the nation for cancer, lung disease and other health problems linked to toxic chemicals from industry smokestacks.
Yet inspections by state air pollution inspectors dropped 81% during the last decade, according to a report compiled by Gade, former Illinois EPA Director Doug Scott and the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago. “If you aren’t looking for violations you aren’t going to find any,” Gade said.
Often it takes persistent citizens, lawsuits from nonprofit groups and the glare of media attention to force environmental regulators into action.
For instance, the Illinois EPA refused to crack down on coal-fired power plants in Chicago and the suburbs, despite records documenting multiple violations of clean air laws. Market forces eventually priced the coal plants out of electricity markets, and most ended up closing under legal pressure from community groups, Chicago aldermen and the U.S. EPA.
The state agency also has been largely absent from investigations of brain-damaging manganese pollution contaminating Chicago’s Southeast Side and lead-tainted yards in the Pilsen neighborhood. It took a citizen lawsuit and a federal investigation to force changes in the regulation of confined hog and cattle farms downstate, but the Illinois EPA still lacks dedicated inspectors to ensure the operations aren’t spilling manure into the state’s creeks and rivers.
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“You can have all the rules in the world, but if you don’t have the staff or the expertise to implement them, it’s useless,” said a veteran Illinois EPA official, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Morale is horrible. Employees have no guidance or tools to do their jobs.”
Pritzker has signaled that he understands the problems and plans to fix them. Among other things, his administration has posted 161 job openings at the Illinois EPA this year, compared with 276 posted between 2013 and 2017.
“The governor believes the IEPA plays an important role ... and appreciates the bipartisan agreement of leaders from years past that we need to invest in critical government services to better serve the people of Illinois,” Jordan Abudayyeh, a Pritzker spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Another reason enforcement is on the decline across Illinois is the agency has cut back sharply on using its most powerful tool: referring cases to the state attorney general’s office for civil or criminal prosecution.
The Tribune reported last year that during former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first year in office, the Illinois EPA referred 73 cases to the attorney general -- by far the lowest number since 1991. The annual average during Rauner’s first three years as governor was 80.
By contrast, the agency sent 198 referrals a year on average during former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s first three years in office and 144 during the same time under former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, the Tribune analysis found.
There have been 89 referrals since Pritzker took office this year, according to records provided by the attorney general’s office.
The steady erosion of money and expertise at the Illinois EPA is even more alarming when considering the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory policies, Schaeffer said.
Trump promised during his campaign to eliminate the U.S. EPA. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who serves as Trump’s EPA administrator, has pushed to cede more authority to states. At the same time, the Trump administration has proposed steep cuts in federal support for state environmental programs.
But one of the reasons former Republican President Richard Nixon created the U.S. EPA in 1970 was leaders in both political parties had concluded states were incapable of holding polluters accountable -- or were unwilling to do so.
The late William Ruckelshaus , an Indiana Republican who served as U.S. EPA administrator under Nixon and former President Ronald Reagan, often said the agency "represents one of the clearest examples of our political system listening and responding to the American people.”
“Budget cuts that hurt programs that states now have in place to meet those duties run the risk of returning us to a time when some states offered industries a free lunch, creating havens for polluters,” Ruckelshaus wrote in a 2017 opinion piece. “This could leave states with strong environmental programs supported by the public at a competitive disadvantage compared to states with weak programs. In other words, it could lead to a race to the bottom.”