Prosecuting environmental crimes

By Russell Murdock
Office of Regional Counsel, Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas

Criminals come in all shapes and sizes, as do their crimes. One type of crime that does not always receive the attention it deserves is environmental crime. What does an environmental crime look like? Some, like those deriving from the tragedies at Deepwater Horizon or the BP Texas City Refinery explosion, lead to death or immediate serious injury. Others, like those from a recent prosecution in federal court in Marshall, have to do with the criminal exposure of unprotected workers to dangerous asbestos. Still others involve the pollution of our state’s waterways, land, and air. Each represents a danger to the environment of our state and its residents.

The detection, investigation, and prosecution of environmental crimes is a collaborative effort throughout texas. Federal and state agencies work together, as well as with their local counterparts, to enforce environmental laws. Since 2014, 114 defendants have been found guilty or pleaded guilty in environmental criminal cases in Texas. Twenty-two of those were sentenced in federal district court while 92 were sentenced in local district courts. Eighty-three of the defendants were individuals, and 31 were corporations.

Despite these resources and coordination, many environmental crimes are not prosecuted, in part because more prosecutors are needed to accept and prosecute environmental cases. Many line prosecutors may not know that environmental crimes fall under both federal and local jurisdiction; additionally, some may be hesitant to step into a new and complicated area of the law seemingly by themselves. But no Texas prosecutor need ever feel they are alone when prosecuting an environmental crime. Criminal agents, investigators, and attorneys from both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are available and eager to assist prosecutors each step of the way. One such example of federal and local prosecutions coinciding took place in Harris County. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office successfully prosecuted a truck driver who was dumping hazardous wastes in and around Houston. This prosecution and investigation then directly led to a fraud investigation of EPA’s renewable fuels program, which spanned multiple states and resulted in federal convictions of several individuals.

The EPA has a Criminal Investigation Division comprised of special agents who are fully authorized peace officers empowered to enforce the nation’s environmental laws, as well as any other federal law, in accordance with guidelines established by the United States Attorney General. EPA’s criminal agents are highly trained men and women dedicated to protecting the country’s air, water, and land resources. In addition to the special agents themselves, EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division can call upon the broader technical, legal, and scientific expertise of the EPA to aid investigating and prosecuting its cases. Attorneys from the EPA, called Regional Criminal Enforcement Counsels, specialize in environmental crimes and are available to answer any questions prosecutors may have. The majority of federal prosecutions based on criminal investigations completed by the EPA are brought by local U.S. Attorney Offices or the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

On the state side, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) Environmental Crimes Unit provides technical support and criminal investigative expertise in multi-agency investigations. TCEQ’s Environmental Crimes Unit is comprised of several criminal investigators positioned throughout the state. In addition to investigating crimes, this unit also serves as a resource for and provides training to local, state, and federal law enforcement officers on criminal environmental violations. Its goal is to increase recognition of environmental crime as a threat to public safety and to encourage and support enforcement of environmental statutes at the state level. Several members of TCEQ’s Environmental Crimes Unit volunteer with the Southern Environmental Enforcement Network (SEEN) to provide training not only to law enforcement, but also to local prosecutors.

The TCEQ hosts regular meetings of the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force to promote collaboration across all levels of federal, state, and local government. Every few months, representatives from EPA, U.S. Department of Justice, TCEQ, Office of the Attorney General of the State of Texas, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, Travis County District Attorney’s Office—which has extensive experience prosecuting environmental crime—and several other local and county offices, meet to collaborate and aid each other in their criminal investigations and prosecutions. Other regional taskforces exist throughout the state as well, Across Texas, a few intrepid prosecutors from all levels of government are doing their part to protect the environment—but more are needed. If you are interested in helping to protect Texans’ public health and natural resources from environmental criminals, reach out to your new partners using the contact information below.

Resources

To learn more about EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, visit www.epa.gov/enforcement/criminal-enforcement-overview or call 214/665-6600 to speak with the Dallas area office. To learn more about TCEQ’s Environmental Crimes Unit, visit www.tceq.texas.gov/compliance/investigation/crime, and to learn more about the Southern Environmental Enforcement Network’s training opportunities, visit www.seentrain-ing.org.