The Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement program posted fiscal year 2006 gains in some categories and declines in others, compared with last year's results.

The number of civil enforcement cases EPA referred to the Justice Dept. in fiscal 2006 was the highest in at least five years and the number of such cases concluded also rose. In addition, EPA Nov. 15 reported that it had 23,000 compliance inspections in 2006, the highest level in at least five years.

Granta Y. Nakayama, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assistance, told reporters that the agency has "a robust and effective enforcement program." But in the Superfund program, the number of cleanup commitments EPA got from hazardous-waste site owners and operators fell more than 50% in 2006, to 391.

The number of criminal cases initiated dropped for the fourth year in a row, to 305, but Nakayama says that the agency is focusing on "high-impact" cases. "These cases require more resources," and take longer to pursue, he says. "We think this is the right strategic direction."

Civil penalties from enforcement actions fell 19% in fiscal 2006, to $124 million, after two years of increases.

EPA's enforcement actions led to pledges to spend $4.9 billion on pollution control, down 51% from last year's record $10 billion, but still the second-highest level in the program's history, the agency reported. "There were two or three very large cases in '05," Nakayama says. They include two under the Clean Air Act: a $1.1-billion settlement with Ohio Edison Co. and a $500-million settlement with Illinois Power Co.

The number of pollutant-reduction commitments also declined 19%, to 890. EPA says that's the fourth-highest total in that category since 1998.

In the air pollution area, "The estimated health benefits of their accomplishments fell off quite substantially," says John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He contends that EPA's figures declined in that category because the agency wasn't filing major new Clean Air enforcement cases "where they get tremendous pollution-reduction numbers."