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Environmental Crime - Defining Environmental Crime

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At the beginning of the twenty-first century environmentalists, government agencies, and environmental attorneys were still struggling to define exactly what was an environmental crime, what actions should be prosecuted, and what penalties were considered appropriate.

Through the 1980s and 1990s the public usually linked environmental crime with the following actions: contaminating water by dumping chemicals into a stream or river; releasing pollutants into the air; and, improper disposal, storage, or transportation of hazardous wastes such as pesticides, chemicals, and radioactive materials. Legal proceedings focused on actions by corporations or businesses that violated environmental laws. For this reason, early environmental crimes were considered white-collar crime or illegal activity carried on within normally legal businesses.

Yet many environmental crimes did not fit under the white-collar mold. A truck driver who illegally stores gallons of hazardous waste rather than taking them to a proper disposal site could not be considered part of white-collar crime. Likewise a farmer who dumps pesticides into a stream, a hunter who shoots a protected bald eagle, or someone who smuggles exotic birds or animals into the United States have all committed environmental crime but are not part of the white-collar world.

Rather than calling all environmental crime white-collar crime, law professionals tried to develop a better definition. Factors generally considered are: (1) the harm done, whether the action caused harm immediately or was only potentially harmful; (2) the action itself, ranging from littering to major dumping of hazardous wastes; and, (3) the offender, whether individual or corporation.

Despite the attempt to further define environmental crime, it remains confusing. A person who releases chemical waste into a river, causing numerous fish to die has done immediate harm, but a company's storage of hazardous chemical containers in a warehouse is only potentially harmful to wildlife and humans. Scientific uncertainties make it more difficult to prove whether an action is harmful, potentially harmful, or not harmful.

Concerning specific actions, should someone who illegally dumps leftover paint thinner down a street drain be prosecuted as forcefully as a company employee who dumps hazardous wastes into a stream in the middle of the night? Should the employer of the person who committed "midnight dumping" (disposing waste in the middle of the night) be prosecuted along with the employee? If a large company violates environmental law, can a corporation be prosecuted or only individuals within the company? Should only the top officials of a company be prosecuted? Should only those who seek financial gain from environmental crime be prosecuted? These questions show why environmental crime is much more difficult to define than crimes such as assault or robbery.

Mary Clifford proposed a definition of environmental crime in her 1998 book Environmental Crime, as "an act committed with intent to harm or with a potential to cause harm to ecological and/or biological systems" as well as with the purpose to increase business or personal gain. According to Clifford, an environmental crime "is any act that violates an environmental protection statute [law]."


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