On February 12, the federal government announced a mult-imillion-dollar settlement with Shell Oil over a long list of air pollution violations at a petrochemical refinery in Norco, Louisiana. In a statement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the settlement "demonstrates EPA's dedication" to pursuing pollution violations and protecting public health.

But it was President Obama's EPA, not Pruitt and the Trump administration, that issued the long list of air pollution violations against the Norco refinery. Environmentalists say the $350,000 in fines finally levied against Shell amount to a slap on the wrist, part of a pattern of lax enforcement under Pruitt's watch. Federal regulators say the Norco refinery has illegally released toxic pollutants such as benzene into the air since at least 2009, and local advocates have been documenting such pollution for nearly two decades. They say the government should have been enforcing the law 20 years ago.

Citizen scientists

"For us who lived there, it was like living next to a ticking time bomb," Margie Richard, a former Norco resident who organized with a local environmental justice group to take on Shell Oil, told Truthout in an interview. "You could never breathe the air."

To prove their point, residents armed themselves with five-gallon buckets containing air-sampling units and began testing the air in their neighborhood. They consistently detected benzene, a known carcinogen that causes an array of health problems, as well as other toxic emissions.  The company eventually agreed after several years of negotiations to buy out a number of homes so residents could relocate. Richard moved about 20 minutes away.

Looking good on paper

The government is catching up with local activists after settling with Shell Oil over a long list of air pollution violations at the refinery. According to a consent decree negotiated by the Justice Department, the company will pay $350,000 in fines and spend $10 million on new pollution control equipment to reduce dangerous emissions from the refinery's four industrial flares, which can often be seen burning bright in the night sky.

EPA estimates the settlement will help Shell reduce air pollution emissions by 150 tons. Safety activists argue a consent decree looks good on paper, but it's meaningless without regulatory enforcement, which is sorely lacking in Louisiana.

The amount that polluters are paying in fines and penalties has declined sharply in the past year under Pruitt and the Trump administration. Penalties for violating environmental laws are down 60 percent compared to the first year of the Obama administration and 49 percent compared to the average amount levied by the EPA during the first year of Bush, Obama and Clinton administrations, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

The amount that Trump's EPA has required companies to spend to clean up their pollution has also dropped. The EPA demanded polluters spend $3.3 billion on cleanup during the first year of the Obama administration, while the current EPA has asked for $966 million so far, according to the report. The EPA has also resolved fewer cases than previous administrations, and a backlog of unresolved violations is growing, some dating back to the Obama years. Environmentalists say the drop in penalties is not due to better behavior among polluters, but to staffing, budget and policy changes at the EPA.

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