Severe staffing cutbacks are overwhelming the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement efforts.
That's according to a new policy analysis from the University of Chicago Law School's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic. The IEPA's employee count dived from 1,265 employees in 2003 to just 639 in 2018.
Mark Templeton is director of the clinic and one of the authors. He doesn't attribute the agency's shortcomings to poor performance by staff or leadership - but rather, too much work for too few people.
"You just can't do the job you need to do if you're just going to be consistently underresourced. The reality of this is, this is not a game. This is life or death, quality of life for the people of the state of Illinois," he said.
He said the staff shortage has left the agency unable to follow up on polluters' self-reported violations or conduct health tests on nearly 85 percent of streams and rivers, and half of the state's lakes, reservoirs, and ponds. Inspections of air-pollution facilities has declined by 81 percent since 2003, per the analysis.
The report says the agency is also failing to refer many cases to the Illinois Attorney General's Office for litigation.
Templeton attributes the staffing shortage to several factors, including vacancies left open when people retire. He also said the IEPA hasn't received any general fund appropriations from the Illinois General Assembly since 2003. Overall budget increases for the agency are also lagging far behind the national average.
The report was hailed as a call to action by former Illinois EPA Directors Doug Scott and Mary Gade and other former professional regulators in a press release Tuesday.
The report recommends hiking environmental fees from 2003 levels to fully cover today's costs, new revenue sources like plastic bottle and bag fees, more environmental justice work, building a robust staffing and mentoring program, and creating a blue-ribbon panel composed of environmental experts to recommend overhauls at the agency.
WCBU has reached out to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's administration for a response to the policy analysis.