Since the early 1990s, businesses that have been levied fines for irresponsible polluting have been able to reduce their penalties by supporting Special Environmental Projects (SEPs), clean-world projects unrelated to their environmental infractions. Cleaning streams, for instance, or replacing their local school district’s fleet of old school buses with new, more efficient ones. Whatever the company spends on the project, it gets 80 percent of that total off its civil penalty.

On March 13, 2020, a Department of Justice memo said that the practice violates the Miscellaneous Receipts Act, interpreted here as meaning that money acquired by the government go only to the U.S. Treasury. The DOJ argues that Special Environmental Projects are a misdirection of the fines owed to the government, and should only be allowed with express and individual approval from Congress. The agency also argue that their enforcement has been too erratic over the years, damaging the concept as a whole. Perhaps they’re right.

Special Environmental Projects have been controversial since their beginning, with supporters and detractors on both sides of the aisle. The EPA, probably the most relevant agency, is in favor of them.

“Everybody likes these for a reason,” said Cynthia Giles, former assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement. “Communities like them because they are the people who have been harmed—this is their way to get redress. Companies like them—yes, because it helps them improve their public image, but [also] because it gives them a chance to give something back,” she said, adding that companies often asked her for more opportunities to do SEPs. “And government likes them because they help to resolve these cases in a way that benefits everyone.”

This new ruling has been rumored since August 2019, when the DOJ announced that it was reviewing the program and preemptively limiting certain kinds of Special Environmental Projects, such as replanting and community landscaping.

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