The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started hiring more people to investigate environmental crimes, but some advocates believe it's not moving fast enough.
A Freedom of Information Act Request from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) from December, which was first shared with The Hill this week, shows that the EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement Forensics & Training currently has 161 environmental cops.
This is a bump up from recent years, when their numbers got as low as 140 in 2018, according to a prior PEER records requests, but is also well below a 200-person minimum established by Congress.
The new figure puts it about in line with Obama-era numbers, per previous requests from the group showing that it had 175 agents in 2012, but just 154 in 2015, according to the organization.
But Jeff Ruch, PEER's Pacific director, said that the number is particularly concerning amid fiscal year 2021's low number of criminal case referrals to the Justice Department.
"Biden's EPA is not going to reinvigorate criminal enforcement, or there's no sign that they're moving in that direction," Ruch said.
"Their environmental justice depends upon prosecution and one of the first steps they need to do is hire more investigators - significantly more investigators - than they are," he added.
EPA spokesperson Enesta Jones confirmed via email that the agency has about 160 special agents, and said it is hiring, but the process takes time.
"Hiring is ongoing and a priority, but the process requires additional security clearances needed for criminal enforcement special agents. There is also mandatory retirement for agents who are criminal investigators at age 57, and those retirements add to the hiring challenge, as the program was unable to hire for many years," Jones said.
Data from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse show that in fiscal year 2021, the EPA referred its lowest number of criminal cases to the Justice Department in decades.
Those 152 cases were referred either during the last few months of the Trump administration and first several months of the Biden administration, since the federal government's fiscal year begins in October.
But building up a criminal case can take time, and Jones said that the pandemic caused an additional backlog.
"The pandemic and limitations placed on other internal EPA, federal, state and local partners, affected the quantity of incoming allegations, data and real time information. As judicial systems nationwide continue to work through closure related backlogs, we expect case progressions and judicial results to increase," she said.
The Biden administration has said that it hopes to focus greatly on environmental justice, or addressing the disproportionate environmental harm faced by minority and other disadvantaged communities.
Ruch said that strong criminal enforcement will be key to this goal.
"Without criminal prosecution, in many instances, pollution becomes an acceptable cost of doing business," he said. "It's the criminal prosecution that brings personal liability to corporate executives that changes behavior."
Jones, meanwhile, defended the agency's recent record on environmental justice, saying that over the past year, it has "strengthened enforcement of environmental violations with disproportionate impact on communities with environmental justice ... concerns."
She specifically pointed to enforcement actions in places such as St. Croix, where the agency ordered a controversial oil refinery to pause its operations, and highlighted actions such as a partnership with the Justice Department to support victims.