Prosecution Of Envtl. Crimes

Drums at the Oil Drum Dump Site, 1950s. Image has been digitally enhanced for contrast. Courtesy of NOAA.
Detroit, Michigan. Sign warning of polluted water in Lake Erie near Detroit, 1962. Courtesy of the National Archives.There was a time, not so long ago, when pollution was accepted by many as the price one paid for living in an industrialized society. By the 1960s, our rivers had become so polluted by municipal and industrial wastes that fish could not survive in them and humans could not swim in them; millions of yards of garbage and millions of gallons of oil were routinely being dumped at sea; visibility in our major cities was obscured by smoke from factories and exhaust from automobiles; and industrial wastes, buried in drums and dumped in landfills, was contaminating soil and groundwater.

Eventually, the public began to realize what this meant to the quality of life in the United States: drinking water supplies threatened with contamination; beaches closed because sewage and garbage were washing ashore; the emergence of health problems associated with polluted air; and the disappearance of seemingly inexhaustible species of aquatic life from oceans and estuaries. Once these realities hit home, the government began to respond forcefully.

Beginning in the 1970's, a set of unique and complex laws were passed to protect the air, the water, and the soil. Because these environmental statutes imposed significant costs on corporations and government entities, criminal provisions were added to ensure compliance with them. An early goal of criminal enforcement was to ensure that businesses that intentionally failed to comply with environmental statutes would not gain a competitive advantage over those that bore higher costs in order to run their operations cleanly and honestly.

One result of the passage of environmental criminal provisions was the establishment of the Environmental Crimes Unit, later known as the Environmental Crimes Section (ECS), within what was then known as the Land and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. Since its inception, the Section has had as its mission the prosecution of individuals and corporations that have violated laws designed to protect the environment. The Section has been instrumental in changing corporate and public opinion to recognize that environmental criminal violations are serious infractions with far ranging consequences.

The Section works closely with criminal investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and other agencies in enforcing criminal violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) (hazardous waste), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or “Superfund”) (for the clean up of abandoned hazardous waste sites), the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) and other federal environmental statutes with criminal sanctions.

Updated April 13, 2015