BOISE, Idaho - Companies, state agencies and cities in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington paid $3.1 million in penalties and agreed to spend nearly $58 million to clean up or control pollution during fiscal year 2008, according to the region's top federal environmental enforcer.
Mike Bussell, the Environmental Protection Agency's compliance and enforcement director in Seattle, released figures Thursday for the four states covering the 12 months ending in September.
The totals are down from the two previous years. Total penalties were $4.1 million in 2007 and $3.6 million in 2006, while companies agreed to spend $31 million on pollution control in 2007 and $115 million in 2006. Bussell said the figures can vary widely because large settlements in one year may not be repeated.
Bussell told The Associated Press in an interview that he was ordered four years ago by EPA officials in Washington, D.C., to improve what he termed lackluster enforcement in the region, prompting a move to centralize inspection oversight in the Seattle office. He said he's since boosted the number of inspectors and improved their training to help them tackle increasingly complicated cases.
"We've been working really hard to re-establish our inspector ranks, get them trained and equipped so they can be in a position to really have the capacity and capability to go out in the field," Bussell told the AP. "If you don't have the capacity and the capability, you can really get snowed."
Across the United States, the EPA said Thursday, companies violating environmental laws will spend a record $11.8 billion to reduce pollution. They paid $127 million in penalties, the largest amount since fiscal year 2004. The agency also estimated that improvements it's ordered nationwide will cut pollution releases by 3.9 billion pounds per year.
In Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, there were 1,183 inspections in 2008, resulting in 142 enforcement actions. Bussell said his agency's enforcement work caused companies to invest in measures that will reduce pollution in the four states by an estimated 22 million pounds, compared with 9.1 million pounds in 2007 and 26 million pounds in 2006.
The agency didn't detail what kinds of pollution were reduced. Bussell said the numbers also vary from year to year, but he's satisfied with the progress of his agency's efforts in the region so far.
"It's starting to show up in improved outcomes," he said. "The real key will be, can we maintain this trend over time?"
Even so, some groups insist the EPA is focused too heavily on fines. In recent years, its inspectors have visited Idaho cattle feedlots after the federal agency concluded the state Department of Agriculture hasn't followed through on a pact to enforce Clean Water Act provisions to keep manure from streams and rivers.
"They're getting pressure from Washington, D.C., to get more aggressive," said Kent Mann, president of the Idaho Cattle Association. "They said, 'The only way they can show improvement is by fines, not by quality of the environment.' It's always been a concern."
Those hit by the fines also have complained. For instance, the EPA levied a $325,000 penalty in July against the Idaho Transportation Department for renewed violations related to a botched northern Idaho highway project that polluted Lake Coeur d'Alene's Mica Bay.
The state agency's director, Pam Lowe, then accused the EPA of focusing "on the technicalities of a complicated process rather than our efforts to keep Idaho's water clean." Bussell countered that Lowe fell short of her agency's commitment to prevent repeat accidents.
"Things start to slip through the cracks," he said. "It makes you wonder if they're taking this stuff as seriously as they need to."
In 2006, Bussell said regional inspectors often distributed brochures and other materials to help educate companies and others about complying with the law. That strategy has changed, he said, as inspectors shift to larger, recalcitrant violators who don't appear to have gotten the message.
"We're strategically looking more at folks that didn't take us seriously, which leads to potentially bigger cases," Bussell said. "We're also trying to be more sophisticated in our targeting, doing upfront analysis that will lead us to where the bigger problems are."