When Companies Break Environmental Laws, Why are Responsible Individuals not Prosecuted?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
(graphic: Corruption, Crime & Compliance)

Tens of thousands of businesses have been caught polluting the air, water or soil, but rarely does the federal government prosecute the leaders of these lawbreakers.


The Crime Report found more than 64,000 facilities in federal databases where there have been violations of U.S. environmental laws, but less than 0.5% result in prosecutions.


That’s because the government has consistently preferred to take administrative or civil actions against corporate polluters, even though laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act make it possible to charge executives criminally during investigations.


“As a result, the vast majority of corporate environmental transgressions — even cases that involve the releases of large amounts of toxic chemicals — are relegated to civil and administrative enforcement,” The Crime Report’s Graham Kates wrote.


Fines appear to be just another cost of doing business for some companies. Mining giant Massey Energy violated environmental laws 4,500 times in six years, according to the investigation. Massey was fined $20 million then was bought by Alpha Natural Resources, which continued to violate the law. Alpha has since been found to be in violation 6,000 times and was fined $27.5 million.


A big reason why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice avoid criminal cases is due to lack of manpower and resources.


EPA spokesperson Jennifer Colaizzi told The Crime Report that the agency has decided to focus on “high impact cases,” and that “the reality of budget cuts and staffing reductions make hard choices necessary across the board.”


Pennsylvania officials were forced to prosecute a company on their own after the EPA declined to do so, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. That state’s Attorney General has charged XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, with violating Pennsylvania’s clean streams and solid waste laws after dumping about 50,000 gallons of fracking wastewater into a stream near Hughesville in 2010. The wastewater was found to contain barium, strontium, chlorides and total dissolved solids.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Environmental Crime: The Prosecution Gap (by Graham Kates, Crime Report)

AG's Office Explains Why It Criminally Charged Texas Natural Gas Driller When EPA Did Not (by John Beauge, Patriot-News)

Environmental Crimes Section (U.S. Department of Justice)

9 States Oppose Federal Push to Gut Their Environmental Laws (by Ken Broder, AllGov)


Kuni 2 years ago
Why don’t the local police just charge the offenders with murder, or attempted murder? That way the EPA and Justice Department will no longer have an excuse due to their alleged lack of manpower.

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