Apparently unconcerned that Illinois is one of the top 10 states for industrial air and water pollution in the country, Governor Rauner’s administration is failing to police and penalize industrial polluters. Put more bluntly, Rauner and his EPA are giving polluters a pass.
The Illinois EPA, unlike the US EPA, cannot penalize polluters on its own. It can investigate and negotiate informally with companies, but if a deal cannot be reached, it has to refer the matter to the Illinois attorney general, who can file a civil or criminal complaint. This is the Illinois EPA’s most powerful enforcement tool.
Unfortunately, this is where Rauner’s administration is failing the state. The Illinois EPA has cut back sharply on referring cases to the state’s attorney general. According to a Chicago Tribune analysis of enforcement data, Rauner’s EPA has averaged only 80 referrals a year to the attorney general, compared to 189 for Blagojevich and 144 for Quinn during similar time periods. The result is that, since Rauner became governor in 2015, Illinois has sought only $6.1 million in penalties from polluters-about one-third the amount demanded during the first three years under his two predecessors. (And the amounts sought were paltry, even under previous governors.)
Why is this critical? It’s simple. When the attorney general is able to punish polluters with financial penalties, it deters them and other companies from dumping toxic waste, spewing out air pollution or spilling hazardous chemicals in our water supply in the future. Without this threat, Illinois companies are free to brazenly put people’s health at risk. This is not just rhetoric; it is actually happening. Federal data shows Illinois still has “some of the highest risks in the nation for cancer, lung disease and other health problems linked to toxic chemicals from industry smokestacks.” 1
So, why would the Illinois EPA fail to use its most powerful weapon–the attorney general–to enforce environmental laws? Perhaps telling is the fact that Rauner’s EPA Director, Alec Messina, used to lead a trade group that lobbied on behalf of industries regulated by the agency he now leads. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that Illinois’ EPA is ignoring serious cases of environmental contamination at the expense of people’s health. Messina’s loyalties lie with the companies that pollute, and if he doesn’t refer them to the attorney general for violations, they won’t be punished. It is despicable. Rauner is using the same playbook as Trump is with the US EPA and its new chief, Scott Pruitt: put the fox in charge of the henhouse.
In other words, he is using his power to protect polluters, not their victims.