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The Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Partnerships with States in 2015

Courtesy of Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division

During 2015, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) partnered with many states to enforce our nation’s pollution laws and prosecute traffickers in protected wildlife and illegally harvested timber, as well as to defend challenges to critical infrastructure projects.

For example, 14 states have received a combined total of nearly $8.4 million in civil penalties from joint environmental enforcement cases with the federal government.  In addition, many of the communities surrounding the facilities responsible for violations will benefit from environmental mitigation or supplemental environmental projects funded by the defendants.  In 2015, such projects directed $1 million to the state of New York in a joint case.  And joint enforcement of claims for natural resources damages resulted in an overall recovery to states of over $45 million.

The cases described represent but a few examples of cooperative federalism in environmental enforcement, which is a top priority for ENRD.  I also named senior ENRD lawyer Andrea Berlowe as my Counselor for State and Local Matters, a position designed to facilitate joint efforts by the division and its environmental partners in state and local governments.  The partnerships we have forged with state and local governments in a variety of contexts are critical to achieving ENRD’s mission on behalf of the American people.

Specifically, this year ENRD and the state of Arkansas settled claims against ExxonMobil Pipeline Company and Mobil Pipe Line Company over an oil spill from the Pegasus pipeline, which transports Canadian heavy crude oil, in Mayflower, Arkansas.  The pipeline ruptured, spilling oil directly into a residential neighborhood, then into nearby waterways, including a creek, wetlands and Lake Conway, a tributary of the Arkansas River.  Residents of 22 homes were forced to evacuate due to the hazardous conditions in the neighborhood and most people never moved back.  The United States brought claims for civil penalties and injunctive relief under the Clean Water Act; the state of Arkansas joined our claims and brought additional claims under state law.  Under the agreement, ExxonMobil paid the United States a civil penalty of $3.19 million and will take measures to help prevent and minimize future spills.  The company also paid the state a $1 million penalty and $280,000 in litigation costs, and must perform one or more state supplemental environmental projects valued at $600,000.

We also partnered with the state of Colorado to address Clean Air Act violations by Noble Energy Inc. at its natural gas production operation in the Denver-Julesburg Basin north of Denver, an area that fails to attain the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground level ozone.  At issue were emissions of vapors from hydrocarbon liquids, which contain volatile organic compounds, methane and hazardous air pollutants such as benzene.  EPA and Colorado inspectors observed emissions from storage tanks using state-of-the-art optical imaging and thermal infrared cameras.  Under the terms of the agreement, Noble will pay penalties, conduct an engineering evaluation of vapor systems, undertake corrective actions as needed and verify the adequacy of the actions at over 3,400 tank batteries.  Noble also will retain a third party to audit the performance of this work and install next-generation pressure monitoring on tank batteries.  The total value of the civil penalty split between the United States and the state of Colorado, plus mitigation and Supplemental Environmental Projects, was nearly $9 million.

On the defensive side, the division worked closely with state partners in defending numerous important infrastructure projects.  Those efforts were successful in facilitating the replacement of the aging Bonner Bridge on the North Carolina coast, the upgrading and maintenance of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel for rail transportation in Washington, D.C., the expansion of U.S. Route 431 in Eufala, Alabama, and the Monroe Bypass near Charlotte, North Carolina.

The past year also marked continuing cooperation with states in the division’s criminal prosecutions.  This ranged from providing training to state partners to close coordination in wildlife and pollution investigations.  Prosecutors from ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section (ECS) presented at several events where state investigators learned of opportunities and methods for developing wildlife and environmental crimes cases, either in concert with federal counterparts or independently.

Our state connections also were vital to achieving successful outcomes in several criminal prosecutions.  For example, United States v. Baravik involved illegal trafficking in paddlefish eggs, a highly valuable caviar substitute poached on a large scale from Missouri waterways.  Baravik was convicted at trial for his role in the illegal trade of $30,000-$50,000 worth of paddlefish eggs.  His case was a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation officers from both the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Oklahoma Department of Conservation.

In addition to working directly with our state partners, the criminal penalties sought by ENRD prosecutors can directly mitigate damage when pollution or wildlife crimes lead to harm to state lands, resources or waterways.  As in the civil context, such cases may include restitution or mitigation to states, in addition to other penalties.

For instance, the outcome of United States v. Harbor House Seafood, a case involving the illegal harvest of oysters from the Delaware Bay, led to $140,000 in restitution to the state of New Jersey for loss of that state’s seafood resources.  Likewise, in United States v. Michael Hayden, the court ordered a trafficker in illegally harvested striped bass to pay nearly $500,000 in restitution to the state of Maryland for the damage he did to Maryland’s seafood resources.

Finally, through a criminal plea agreement in United States v. Duke Energy Corporation, the long term damage caused by criminally negligent maintenance of coal ash basins was addressed through $10 million an authorized wetlands mitigation bank for the purchase of wetlands or riparian lands to offset the long-term environmental impacts to the states were those basins are located.

Updated March 3, 2017