National Whistleblower Day

The men on the EPA’s wanted list didn’t kill anyone, but they could make a lot of people sick. They are accused of dumping mercury contaminated soil, smuggling ozone depleting freon into the US or covering up illegal cruise ship discharges.

But a story in The American Prospect magazine suggests that many states don’t have lawyers or detectives prepared to go after environmental criminals. The piece is based on an internal EPA document and was originally published for subscribers to The Capitol Forum.

Twenty states have zero dedicated criminal enforcement attorneys or investigators, according to a document maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. The Capitol Forum obtained the document through an open records request.

To effectively monitor, enforce, and deter criminal environmental conduct, states should have dedicated staff members and resources, according to interviews with former EPA staff who collaborated with state-level environmental programs during their careers.

The document was a list of “full-time employee[s] whose job is investigating and/or prosecuting pollution control crime.” Only eight states had both an inspector and an attorney. The EPA told The Capital Forum that the agency does not have minimum law enforcement staffing requirements for state  programs. Sometimes they work with state police or an attorney general’s office on environmental crimes, according to the EPA’s comment. State regulators described similar partnerships.

Whistleblower programs can bolster the enforcement of environmental laws. Cruise ship crew members have alerted authorities to dumping at sea. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a whistleblower program. And the National Whistleblower Center has just launched a program to enlist whistleblowers in the fight against global warming.

Here’s how the UN describes environmental crime:

Environmental crime does not currently have a universally agreed upon definition, however it is regularly used to refer to almost any illegal activity that harms the environment for the (often financial) benefit of individuals, groups or companies. This can involve illegal exploitation and trafficking of natural resources, including flora and fauna, and soil and water contamination from illegal waste dumping. Some environmental crimes also fall into the category of serious organised trans-national crime as criminal groups and networks are increasingly engaged in what is currently representing a growing lucrative opportunity. Very often the modus operandi of criminal networks involves corruption and money laundering in association to crimes against the environment.

While they may be relative newcomers to environmental crime, whistleblowers and their supporters have lot of experience dealing with corruption and money laundering. As more environmental advocates turn to the law, whistleblowers promise to play a bigger role.