A new government watchdog report says environmental lawyers have collected millions of dollars in lawyers’ fees from taxpayers by suing and winning cases against the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the report, by the Government Accountability Office, also shows that business and industry lawsuits account for nearly half of EPA’s legal workload, which is far more than the 30 percent of cases from environmental and citizens groups.
And the two biggest years for lawsuits over the past decade and a half came in 1997 and 2010, when a Democratic administration ran the agency and businesses clashed with it. Environmental groups, meanwhile, did most of their suing during President George W. Bush’s time in office.
All told, the Justice Department spent $43 million from 1995 to 2010 to defend itself against lawsuits, and spent millions more to pay attorney fees - averaging nearly $1.7 million a year from 2006 to 2010.
The fee payments are allowed by law, and are designed to compensate citizens who sue and beat the government. GAO said payments were made in about 11 percent of cases, and ranged from as little as $145 up to $720,000.
“The GAO report shows that taxpayers have been on the hook for years while ‘big green’ trial lawyers have raked in millions of dollars suing the government,” said Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who requested the report along with Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican “Even worse, because of sloppy recordkeeping by the EPA and other agencies and a lack of cooperation by the Justice Department, we’re not even sure how bad the problem really is. This is unacceptable and I’m going to continue working to demand greater transparency.”
Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in environmental cases, received more than $4.6 million in attorney fees during the period GAO examined - 32 percent of the total. The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council accounted for another 9 percent.
But Patti Goldman, vice president for litigation at Earthjustice, said their lawsuits force the government to follow its own laws, and she said that’s saved thousands of lives through cleaner water and air.
She said the real driver of EPA’s legal caseload is businesses.
“Industry sues EPA far more than environmental groups,” she said. “What we have going on here is there’s really an industry attack on EPA, and politicians like Sens. Inhofe and Vitter are helping lead the charge politically on the Hill.”
GAO said EPA officials did not comment on a draft of the report that was submitted to them, and a spokeswoman on Wednesday did not comment in time for this edition.
Mr. Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the costs identified by GAO are “the tip of the iceberg.”
He said the agency was unable to find out how much time EPA lawyers spend on these cases independently of the Justice Department.
GAO said there was no discernible pattern for the lawsuits, but that those they interviewed for their investigation said a change in administration or the release of an important new regulation could spur challenges.
And one environmental organization told GAO that plaintiffs are increasingly turning to lawsuits as a way to test whether laws should be applied to new situations that were not envisioned when the legislation passed Congress, in some cases decades ago.
“For example, parties disagree over whether the Clean Air Act should be used to regulate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide - substances that some stakeholders say the act was not originally designed to regulate,” GAO explained.