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Polluters get a slap on wrist

June 13, 2003 | Page 2

ABOUT A quarter of the largest factories and water treatment facilities are violating pollution standards at any point in time, yet only a fraction will ever face penalties for it. That's the conclusion of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) own internal investigation.

For obvious reasons, the study of compliance with the 30-year-old Clean Water Act was kept internal to the EPA since it was completed in February, but the Washington Post revealed the conclusions in a recent report. EPA researchers found that about 25 percent of major facilities were in "significant noncompliance"--meaning that toxic discharges were 20 percent above permitted levels for two months out of the previous six, or that conventional discharges were 40 percent above permitted levels.

Half of the offenders exceeded toxic pollution limits by more than 100 percent, and about one in eight were more than 1,000 percent over. But despite the high number of violations, almost no one gets punished.

According to the study, some companies and municipalities that have illegally discharged toxic chemicals or biological waste into rivers, lakes and other waterways for years--without ever once being sanctioned by the government. The EPA took formal action against only about one in seven violators during the 1999-2001 period studied by researchers.

Fewer than half of those cited in these actions were even fined. And the average amount of the EPA fines was a piddling $6,000. That's not even pocket change for Corporate America.

In a separate study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group last year, an anonymous EPA official said that "it's easier" to settle cases for a few thousand dollars than to seek millions in penalties by going to court.

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