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Environmental Crime

Growing Environmental Awareness, Defining Environmental Crime, Occupational Safety And Health Act, Environmental Enforcement AgenciesEnvironmental laws, Case studies of corporate environmental crime

In the United States through the first half of the twentieth century little attention was paid to protecting the environment. Americans simply thought the environment and its resources were to be used to build a mighty industrial nation, to build cities, and to create the world's most productive agricultural system. Modern-day environmentalists, those who promote the protection of the environment, often point to the publication in 1962 of the book Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, as a key factor in the start of environmental awareness. Carson, who was a biologist and longtime U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, warned her readers about the destructive properties of pesticides. Pesticides are chemicals used to rid areas or crops of harmful insects and bugs.

Carson researched the effects of pesticides and found that birds, fish, and animals were harmed and that pesticides were also entering the human food chain. Silent Spring not only focused global attention on the environment but led to laws restricting the use of pesticides.

Some 270,000 barrels of oil was spilled along the northern coast of Alaska when the Exxon Valdez ran ashore in 1989. (AP/Wide World Photos)

In the second half of the twentieth century, Congress passed numerous environmental laws that included penalties to help guide judges and juries. Both small offenses, with mostly local impact, as well those affecting large areas and many people, have been prosecuted. Environmental laws are constantly being updated, changed, and sometimes abandoned. Following are the major federal laws regulating the environment as of 2000.

Clean Air Act of 1970

The Clean Air Act (CAA) regulates emissions of gases or small particles released into the air. The act authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set air quality standards to protect public health and the environment. These standards are called the National Ambient (surrounding) Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

A stream polluted with waste water runoff flowing into the Ohio River in 1972. (© Charles E. Rotkin/Corbis)

The Clean Air Act provides penalties for violating the NAAQS. No individual or business may knowingly violate the standards, make false statements to the EPA, or tamper with EPA monitoring equipment. Penalties involve fines and possible prison sentences. If any offender releases hazardous pollutants into the air knowing they may place humans in immediate danger, the fines and prison sentences are severe.

Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (Clean Water Act)

Congress passed the earliest form of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1948. With the growing complexity of controlling water pollution and increasing public awareness and concern, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. After more amendments in 1977, the act became known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA's goal is to reduce water pollution.

The act made it illegal for any person or company to release a pollutant into U.S. waters unless a permit carefully controlling the release was obtained. The CWA set four levels of criminal penalties for environmental violations: (1) those considered negligent, where an offender did not realize the release was harmful and prohibited; (2) when the offender knowingly releases a harmful substance; (3) when the offender knows the release will endanger the environment of the water and possibly humans; and, (4) when the offender supplies EPA with false information or tampers with monitoring equipment. Penalties involve fines and sometimes prison sentences. Repeat offenders receive harsher penalties than first time offenders.

Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (Ocean Dumping Act)

The Ocean Dumping Act controls the dumping of substances into ocean waters. Dumping sewage, industrial waste, or materials that include radioactive, chemical, or biological substances is prohibited. Any kind of high level radioactive waste or medical waste is also illegal.

Endangered Species Act

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The act protects certain plants and animals that are struggling to survive. In 2004 approximately 326 species of plants and 306 species of animals were on the endangered list. The act prohibits any activity that is considered harmful to listed species or their habitats. The EPA strictly controls the use of pesticides and makes it a crime to import, export, trap, or harm any listed species.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) controls hazardous waste, including its transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal. A hazardous waste is any solid or liquid substance that because of its quantity, concentration, or physical or chemical properties may cause serious harm to humans or the environment when it is not transported, treated, stored, or disposed of properly.

Sign warning about hazardous waste and toxic substances in the area. (© Joseph Sohm; Chromo Sohm, Inc./Corbis)

Hazardous waste is often toxic (poisonous), corrosive (damaging to eyes, skin, or surfaces), flammable (easy to set on fire), and explosive. Common examples of hazardous waste are pesticides, asbestos (a material formally used in building and manufacturing now known to be harmful), metals such as lead and arsenic, and automotive antifreeze and gasoline.

Any biological substance with the potential to cause infection is considered a biological hazard, or "biohazard," for short. Blood is a common biohazard, as well as soiled material generated at healthcare facilities, such as bed sheets and surgical dressings contaminated with body fluids. Living organisms such as bacteria and viruses from diagnostic procedures or used in research are also considered biohazards.

Criminal offenses under the RCRA include: (1) transporting hazardous waste without a permit; (2) treating, storing, or disposing of hazardous waste without a permit or in violation of a permit's terms; (3) deliberately making false statements in reports to the EPA; (4) destruction of records or failing to file required reports; and, (5) moving hazardous wastes into a foreign country without the knowledge of the country.

Penalties for RCRA violations include fines and prison sentences. Under the RCRA, EPA officials frequently charge corporate officers for the violations of their companies. The 1986 amendments to the RCRA strengthened EPA enforcement, set stricter waste management standards, and addressed problems of underground storage tanks leaking.

Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976

The Toxic Substances Control Act enables the EPA to track approximately seventy-five thousand industrial chemicals either produced or imported into the United States. Keeping track of these materials means screening, testing, and requiring special reports of chemicals that could be harmful to the environment or cause health risks for humans. The act also supports and helps in the enforcement of other acts like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 ("Superfund")

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund, requires the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous waste by those responsible for creating them. The act authorizes the EPA to find those responsible for pollution and require them to cooperate in the cleanup. Once EPA agents locate and identify a site, find the person or group responsible, determine what hazardous substances are present, and verify funds are required to cleanup the site, then criminal penalties are applied.

The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 added new technical requirements and strengthened enforcement of Superfund cleanup. (Superfund is the fund originally established by CERCLA for private corporations to contribute to, so as to create a singe "superfund" [large fund] to finance the cleanup of toxic sites.) Criminal offenses include failing to notify the EPA of a hazardous waste release and falsifying records related to sites. SARA also authorized the government to pay informers (persons who secretly provide information to authorities) money for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of a violator of CERCLA.

Oil Pollution Act of 1990

The Oil Pollution Act tries to prevent oil spills by requiring oil storage facilities and oil tanker ships to follow strict regulations for oil storage. They also must submit plans explaining how they will deal with an oil spill. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act the year after the massive and devastating oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in southern Alaska waters.

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1947 (amended in 1972 and 1996)

This act regulates the manufacture, distribution and sale, and use of insecticides, usually called pesticides, fungicides, and rodenticides. Pesticides are poisons that kill insects harmful to plants and people. Fungicides are poisons that kill mold, mildew, or any fungus harmful to plants. Rodenticides are poisons that kill rodents such as mice and rats.

The act requires users of pesticides and fungicides to register with the EPA. Individuals face criminal penalties if they knowingly misuse a registered poison. Penalties include fines and possible prison sentences.

The type of environmental offender Americans are most familiar with is the large corporation. These crimes are covered on television and in newspapers. The first three case examples involve Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retail sales corporation; General Motors Corporation, an automobile manufacturer; and Exxon Corporation, an oil giant.


In May 2004 Wal-Mart agreed to pay a $3.1 million civil penalty to the United States, Tennessee, and Utah for violations of the Clean Water Act. In the early 2000s Wal-Mart was building approximately two hundred new stores each year. Water runoff from construction sites has been a major contributor to the nation's water quality. Wal-Mart was charged with storm water violations at twenty-four construction sites in nine states.

The charges included failure to have a plan in place to control polluted runoff water, failure to install effective controls, and failure to inspect sites that were releasing sediments into sensitive ecosystems (ecological communities, including plants, animals, and microorganisms, together with their environment). The case was investigated and prosecuted by the EPA and DOJ along with the U.S. attorney in the District of Delaware, plus the state attorney generals' offices of Utah and Tennessee.

In the settlement Wal-Mart was required to use aggressive measures to control runoff, setting an example of high standards for other developers and contractors. Wal-Mart was to conduct training on how to deal with runoff, inspect sites frequently, and take immediate corrective action when needed. They were also required to spend $250,000 on wetlands protection projects in at least one of the states where violations were found.

General Motors Corporation

In 1995 General Motors (GM) Corporation settled with the U.S. government for $45 million for violations of the Clean Air Act. The DOJ prosecuted the case, charging General Motors with selling vehicles, specifically the 1991 to 1995 model year Cadillacs, that did not meet Clean Air Act emission standards for carbon monoxide.

The Cadillacs were equipped with illegal devices that caused up to three times the allowed amount of carbon monoxide to be released whenever the vehicle's heating or cooling systems were operating. General Motors added the device after customers complained about stalling engines. The EPA discovered that the Cadillacs failed to meet federal air emission requirements in routine testing in 1993.

GM's $45 million settlement included an $11 million fine, $25 million to recall and fix the Cadillacs, and $8.75 million on projects to help lessen effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide poisoning affects a human's ability to work and learn, and can cause headaches and impaired vision.

Exxon Mobil Corporation

At 9:12 P.M. on March 23, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker loaded with nearly 54 million gallons of oil, left the Trans-Alaska Pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska. The ship ran aground on Bligh Reef at 12:04 A.M. the following day, and 11 million gallons, or 257,000 barrels, of oil spilled into Prince William Sound. Over the next three days the oil spread over the flat calm water.

The oil-covered beach following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. As of 2004 approximately 3.6 miles of shoreline were still contaminated with oil. (© Natalie Fobes/Corbis)

Little was skimmed off before it polluted approximately 1,300 miles of Alaskan shoreline, an area filled with wildlife. Approximately 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were confirmed dead. Since most of the dead sank into the water, it was estimated that actually 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs were lost.

The DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division, the U.S. attorney general's offices in Washington, D.C., and Anchorage, Alaska, as well as the state of Alaska attorney general's office cooperated in the prosecution of Exxon under the Clean Water Act. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act in 1990.

Settlement was reached on October 9, 1991. Exxon was fined $150 million in the criminal agreement. Since Exxon cooperated in the massive cleanup and also paid private claims, the court forgave $125 million. The remaining $25 million was split between the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund and the national Victims of Crime Fund.

Exxon also paid $100 million to federal and state governments. The federal government spent its share on environmental protection projects, such as shoreline monitoring and oil spill research. The state of Alaska spent its share on improvements for fisheries, wildlife habitats, research, and new recreational facilities.

Exxon agreed to a $900 million settlement in the civil agreement. Exxon paid the entire amount over a ten-year period ending in September 2001. The $900 million went to pay for cleanup, research and monitoring of affected wildlife, habitat protection, restoring the natural landscape, public information, and managing all of the newly established programs.

As of 2004 approximately 3.6 miles of Alaskan shoreline were still contaminated with oil. Wildlife species and the areas affected were categorized as recovered, recovering, or not recovering. Among those listed as "not recovering" are the common loon (a species of duck), harbor seals, Harlequin ducks, and Pacific herring (fish). Although many spills worldwide have been larger, the Exxon Valdez spill is still considered the most damaging.

Tyson Foods and Colonial Pipeline Company

The DOJ's Environmental and Natural Resource Division regularly issues reports on its prosecution of environmental crimes. Two examples from 2003 involve Tyson Foods, Inc., and Colonial Pipeline Company.

Tyson Foods, Inc., pled guilty to twenty Clean Water Act violations. During a four-year period Tyson admitted releasing untreated wastewater from a poultry processing plant in Sedalia, Missouri, into storm drains. The drains poured into the Lamine River. Tyson agreed to pay a $5.5 million fine plus $1 million each to the state of Missouri under a separate state civil proceeding and to the Missouri Natural Resources Protection Fund. The company was placed on three-year probation, agreed to an environmental review of its Sedalia facility, and started a new environmental management program.

Colonial Pipeline Company was charged under the Oil Pollution Act of multiple spills along a pipeline that crossed nine states. Its most damaging spill occurred in South Carolina's Reedy River. Approximately 950,000 gallons of diesel fuel went into the Reedy killing 35,000 fish. Prosecuted under civil proceedings, Colonial was required to pay a $34 million civil penalty.

For More Information


Burns, Ronald G., and Michael J. Lynch. Environmental Crime: A Source Book. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2004.

Clifford, Mary. Environmental Crime: Enforcement, Policy, and Social Responsibility. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Jackson, Donna M. The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes Against Nature. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Situ, Yingyi, and David Emmons. Environmental Crime: The Criminal Justice System's Role in Protecting the Environment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000.

Web Sites

"Criminal Enforcement." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/compliance/criminal/index.html (accessed on August 20, 2004).

"EPA Newsroom." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/newsroom (accessed on August 20, 2004).

"Oil Spill Facts." The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/facts (accessed on August 20, 2004).

U.S. Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division. http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/components.htm (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law