IV. Enforcing Environmental Laws
The existence of environmental laws dictates the need for enforcement actions. Accordingly, numerous federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies oversee environmental protection; however, environmental laws are primarily enforced by the EPA (including its regional offices spread throughout the country) and state environmental regulatory agencies. Local law enforcement agencies also have responsibility for enforcing environmental laws; however, their role has been notably limited in this area given local law enforcement’s preoccupation with traditional, or street crime.
Environmental laws are enforced in a different manner from traditional crimes. For instance, the EPA regulates industry by gathering information via industry self-monitoring, industry record keeping and reporting, inspections by government officials (most of which are announced prior to the visit, and occur infrequently), and citizen complaints. When confronting violators, the EPA engages in administrative, criminal, or civil enforcement. The enforcement process typically is initiated by the EPA gathering information and requesting the alleged violator to cease the violating behavior. No further action is taken if the violator complies. Informal negotiations between the EPA and the violator, with the goal of remedying the problem, follow should the violator fail to comply. Civil or criminal actions may be imposed if the violator fails to comply with the request. Criminal enforcement is used as a last resort and requires the cases to be turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution. Very few environmental offenses are prosecuted in criminal court.
Enforcing environmental laws places the EPA and other agencies in a volatile, yet important position. For instance, the EPA is criticized by industry groups for impeding industrial progress, while environmentalists believe the EPA doesn’t do enough to protect the environment. Accordingly, the EPA must consider the interests of multiple groups in its enforcement practices.
A. The Federal Level
The EPA performs many duties and has numerous responsibilities. Although the agency’s objectives fluctuate over time, the EPA consistently focuses on regulating air and water pollution, hazardous waste, and hazardous chemicals. Organizationally, the EPA’s national office is in Washington, D.C., and it maintains 10 regional offices throughout the country. Each regional office is responsible for the execution of EPA programs throughout the region. Most EPA employees are located in regional offices.
Given its vast charges, the EPA is particularly vulnerable to changes in society. For instance, societal changes (e.g., enhanced public concern for pollution) may dictate that varying levels of emphasis be placed on specific issues, and the agency might adjust priorities based on changing EPA administrators and presidents. The EPA has been responsible for many great achievements and has conducted impressive work in protecting the environment. Given its challenging task of representing multiple interests, however, the EPA has been criticized for having unclear agency objectives, succumbing to strong political influences, and corrupt leadership.
The EPA is the primary, but not the sole federal agency responsible for protection of the environment. Other federal agencies maintain partial jurisdiction over the environment, including the Department of Agriculture, which has authority over the National Forest Service, grasslands, and natural resources; the Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases related to the environment; the Department of Defense, which has jurisdiction over military installations, including the handling and disposition of chemical and nuclear weapons; the Department of Energy, including the Office of Environmental Management; and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which works closely with the Department of Defense concerning issues pertaining to nuclear fuel and radioactive materials/ waste.
Several other federal agencies have some level of environmental authority, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Maritime Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission. The EPA also works closely with other groups and agencies that are interested in protecting the environment, including the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of the Interior (DOI). The EPA also works closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For instance, in April 2008 the DHS and the EPA jointly hosted a 3-day conference to address high-priority technical challenges for assessing risk of exposure to pathogens.
B. State-Level Environmental Enforcement
By 1990, each U.S. state had an environmental regulatory agency charged with protecting the environment. Each state regulatory agency must address the unique challenges posed by environmental concerns in its respective state. The EPA works closely with state environmental regulatory agencies, primarily through its regional offices. This decentralized approach to environmental protection is beneficial, as each state can focus on specific environmental issues. Such decentralization, however, limits the EPA’s environmental protection efforts, as decision-making authority is dispersed among multiple levels of government.
State environmental regulatory agencies must adopt federal environmental protection standards, although they may impose more stringent regulations than those required at the federal level. As such, there exists much variation among the enforcement practices of the state regulatory bodies. Further contributing to the variation among state environmental regulatory agency practices are differing societal views of particular environmental issues, state fiscal issues, the influence of various interest groups, and the geographic distribution of particular industries and natural resources across the country. State environmental regulatory agencies provide significant protection of the environment.
C. Law Enforcement and the Environment
Aside from state and federal environmental regulatory agencies, law enforcement agencies at all levels enforce environmental law. Historically, local law enforcement has played a limited role in environmental law enforcement, although their involvement in this area has expanded in recent years as local agencies have become increasingly aware of environmental crime. Through their routine activities such as patrolling, local law enforcement officers are aptly situated to identify and react to environmental harms. The training of local-level law enforcement officers to identify and respond to environmental crimes has been limited, and, historically, officers generally believed that environmental crimes were not worthy of their attention or were the responsibility of other agencies. However, increased concern for homeland security has encouraged local law enforcement officers to become more cognizant of issues beyond street crime, and they are increasingly being trained to detect and respond to environmental crimes.
Issues pertaining to homeland security garnered much public attention following the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. To some extent, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fear surrounding the possibility of additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, shifted public attention away from environmental harms. In response to concerns over homeland security, local-level law enforcement agencies are tasked with the additional and substantial burden of recognizing and reacting to terrorist threats, which could distract them from dealing with environmental crimes. However, efforts toward homeland security certainly involve recognizing terrorist attacks against sites that fall under the jurisdiction of environmental protection agencies, which could lead to enhanced scrutiny of these locations. Further, terrorist threats could increase local law enforcement’s recognition of environmental harms as law enforcement agencies increase in size and officers become increasingly responsible for identifying and responding to unusual activity.
D. Public Involvement in Addressing Environmental Crime
The general public performs a vital role in addressing environmental crime. Public attitudes help shape societal action, and public action typically follows enhanced societal concern for the environment. The actions may include government and industry responses to public pressure, or they can be the result of the public taking a proactive approach to environmental concerns—for instance, as recognized in the contributions of the various environmental movements in recent history.
Recent concern for environmental issues has contributed to the public becoming more responsive to environmental crimes. This is not a unique situation; for example, public attitudes toward environmental crime shifted during the 1980s when the general public became more likely to view environmental crimes as notably harmful acts and not simply the costs of doing business.
Currently, many Americans are troubled by the “greenhouse effect;” global warming; contamination of soil and water by toxic waste; maintenance of the nation’s supply of fresh water for household needs; and pollution of drinking water, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Some of this concern undoubtedly stems from Nobel Peace Prize–winner Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which highlighted the effects of environmental degradation and won an Academy Award.
Grassroots efforts have contributed much to environmental protection, particularly with regard to the detection of environmental crimes. Such efforts facilitate the prevention and resolution of environmental crime at a local level by addressing particular concerns often overlooked by corporations, politicians, and government entities such as law enforcement and regulatory agencies. Accordingly, there is a demonstrated need to confront environmental harms at the local level as opposed to the historical practice of relying on the seemingly distant federal and state agencies to confront environmental issues. Similar to the recent emphasis on community-oriented policing in which the police have greater interaction with the public and rely on citizens to assist in crime-fighting endeavors, grassroots efforts provide a vital supplement to bureaucratic state and federal regulatory efforts regarding environmental law enforcement.
The many challenges associated with addressing environmental crime undoubtedly hamper efforts to protect the public. For instance, consider that regulatory agencies are primarily responsible for enforcing environmental laws, and the penalties associated with committing environmental crime are arguably ineffective as a form of deterrence, rehabilitation, or retribution. The approach taken by regulatory agencies in response to environmental crime largely contrasts with approaches to dealing with traditional crimes (i.e., regulation versus prosecution).