Not only do polluters have lower standards to meet under the Trump administration, they may not really have to meet those standards at all.

That's the conclusion of a new study, published by the Washington Post, that shows enforcement activity has fallen drastically in the past two years since President Trump took office.

The study, conducted by a former EPA official under the Obama administration shows that fines paid to the agency have dropped 85 percent below the historical average in the past two years, to the lowest level since the EPA began its enforcement division in 1994.

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On average, polluters have paid $500 million a year in fines to the agency since that time, culminating in a $5.8 billion fine collected from BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2016. Volkswagen paid the second-highest fine of $1.5 billion to the EPA over its diesel emissions cheating scandal in 2017.

Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA's Enforcement Division from 2009 to 2017, conducted the study, which showed that under the Trump administration, the EPA has launched investigations resulting in $72 million worth of fines in 2018. Without the Volkswagen fine, or others resulting from investigations launched under the Obama administration, the amount would have been smaller in 2017.

“The public expects EPA to protect them from the worst polluters,” Giles told the Washington Post. “The Trump EPA is not doing that. What worries me is how industry will respond to EPA’s abandonment of tough enforcement.”

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler

Even excluding BP's Deepwater Horizon fine from the historical average, EPA enforcement fines dropped 55 percent below the average in 2018. 

Fines are intended to ensure that companies comply with EPA standards by making it more affordable to comply with strict environmental regulations than to break them.

Trump administration officials say they are focusing instead on working with companies in advance to help them meet regulations.

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In his confirmation hearing last week, in the midst of a shutdown at the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, who has been heading the agency as Acting Administrator since July, said the EPA is working with polluters to ensure they comply with the law. "The more compliance assurance that we have, the fewer enforcement actions we need to take,” he told Congress. He also pointed out that new enforcement actions rose in 2018 compared with 2017, though he didn't specify numbers, citing the government shutdown.

In a statement Tuesday, the EPA's current top enforcement official, Susan Bodine, noted that penalties vary year-to-year, and said, EPA enforcement will continue to correct noncompliance using all the tools at its disposal, including imposing civil penalties to maintain a level playing field and deter future misconduct."