January 1999

Environmental Crimes Bulletin - Environmental Enforcement: One Large, Finely Tuned Machine

4 min

While most government agencies are shrinking and tightening their belts, agencies responsible for enforcing environmental laws have grown.

Between 1992 and 1998, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nearly tripled the number of its investigators from 72 to 200. As a result, the number of criminal cases that EPA referred for prosecution to the United States Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section (ECS) over that same time increased nearly three-fold — from 107 to 278.

In addition, four years ago the Department of Justice increased its resources for prosecuting environmental crimes exponentially by changing its policy to allow any U.S. Attorney across the country to prosecute environmental crimes without the oversight of the ECS. Since then, many U.S. Attorneys' Offices have begun forming their own environmental crimes units.

But this influx of resources for prosecuting environmental crimes is only part of the picture. Perhaps even more impressive is the efficiency with which enforcement agencies have begun to approach environmental problems.

Federal, state, and even local enforcement agencies are forming task forces to address environmental problems on a regular basis. For example, in recent months the Tampa Bay Environmental Crimes Task Force — comprised of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida and other representatives from the Department of Justice, EPA, FBI, and state and local law enforcement agencies — announced its first indictments in what are expected to be a long line of prosecutions for violations of hazardous waste laws in the Tampa Bay (Florida) area. (In the last year, nearly half of the 1200 facilities generating hazardous wastes in one Tampa Bay area county were inspected; 63 percent of facilities inspected were found to be in violation of hazardous wastes laws.)

In an effort to bolster state and local enforcement efforts, EPA has established a comprehensive training program for state and local officials through its National Enforcement Investigations Center (NEIC). The NEIC also places Special Agents in Charge (SAIC) in various regions to advise state and local organizations with their criminal investigations. Furthermore, EPA finances regional enforcement organizations that have been formed by states' attorneys general to provide vital information and assistance to state prosecutors and environmental investigators.

EPA also has recently developed (and is continually expanding) an enforcement database that enables the Agency to determine the status of any criminal investigation to which any company is subject nationwide, and to discover all enforcement actions going forward, even at the local level. By integrating enforcement-related data, EPA has the ability to produce environmental “rap sheets” that help the Agency target habitual violators and justify increased penalties based upon their history of noncompliance.

In addition to the increased cooperation at all levels of government, EPA and DOJ have established an enforcement agenda aimed at getting the most “bang for their buck.” First, rather than taking a scatter-shot approach to enforcement, EPA and DOJ are focusing on particular industries so that they can identify problems common throughout those industries, draw media attention to these problems, and send a clear signal to deter members of the targeted industries.

Second, federal enforcers are also focusing on a multi-media approach, which looks at all the potential environmental problems in a company, rather than isolated problems, and provides enforcers of the different environmental laws with the institutional knowledge of a company necessary to effectively assess the source of the company's problems. Enforcement authorities believe that when a company fails to satisfy the requirements of one area of environmental law, chances are that the company is failing to satisfy other requirements.

Third, in some instances, federal enforcers are taking an eco-system management approach. Under this approach, enforcers focus on a geographic area with significant contamination problems and investigate the facilities in the area that may be contributing to the eco-system's problems. This helps enforcers identify violations that, standing alone, may seem relatively insignificant but that are part of serious eco-system problems. It also helps to focus media attention and rally more regional public interest than typically exists in a specific environmental enforcement matter.

In short, as enforcement resources continue to grow and enforcement authorities continue to improve their coordination of these resources, it is becoming more and more likely that companies failing to comply with environmental laws will be found.