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CHICAGO — Penalties sought from polluters in Illinois have dropped to $6.1 million under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration, a newspaper analysis of enforcement data shows.

That's about two-thirds less than the inflation-adjusted amount demanded during the first three years under his previous two predecessors, Democrats Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich, according to the Chicago Tribune analysis.

The decline is partly because the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, under Rauner, has cut back on referring cases to the state attorney general's office for civil or criminal prosecution. During Rauner's first year as governor in 2015, the EPA referred 73 cases to the attorney general — by far the lowest number since 1991. The annual average during his tenure is 80. By contrast, the EPA sent 198 referrals a year on average during Blagojevich's first three years in office and 144 during the same time period under Quinn.

"I have been dismayed by the sudden dropoff in the number of IEPA referrals to my office," Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement. "The failure to thoroughly investigate and refer violations of the laws has dangerous consequences for people's health and the environment."

Illinois is among the nation's top 10 states for the amount of pollution released into the environment annually, according to federal records. The state's residents face some of the highest risks in the nation for cancer, lung disease and other health problems linked to toxic chemicals from industry smokestacks, the records show.

"Penalties matter because they cost violators money, and that's an incentive for other companies to stay in compliance," said Eric Schaeffer, a former chief of enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "States and the EPA should work to make rules as clear as possible, reduce excess paperwork and encourage voluntary compliance. But those efforts don't yield as much if nobody believes violators will be sanctioned."

Rauner's office didn't respond to the Tribune's requests for comment. His EPA director, Alec Messina, told the newspaper that he has urged agency staff to crack down on pollutors.

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Information from: Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com

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