Review of Environmental Laws, Violations, and Defenses
Both the United States Congress and the California state legislature have passed various laws regulating what we can and can't do regarding the air, water, and overall environment that surrounds us.
Environmental crimes are offenses that endanger the community through dumping, leaking, or other forms of introducing toxic chemicals or other substances into our environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the responsibility to conduct an investigation into possible environmental crimes.
If the EPA discovers a violation of the environmental laws, then an individual person or corporation could face criminal prosecution by the United States Department of Justice leading to large fines and even time in a federal prison.
In addition, anyone accused of specific certain environmental crimes could be ordered by the court to pay the costs that are associated with any cleanup.
Some of the most common federal statutes used for the prosecution of environmental crimes include the:
- Clean Water Act;
- Clean Air Act; and
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
These statutes cover the vast majority of federal environmental criminal indictments and include oil spills, discharge of pollutants into the water, improper disposal of hazardous waste, and removal of asbestos.
Environmental cases frequently involve individuals and corporations who are defendants. These type of criminal prosecutions require unique defense strategies that don't apply to other offenses under federal law.
Put simply, any person or business accused of environmental violations needs a defense attorney with experience in dealing with EPA investigators and knows the burden of proof standards.
Many are surprised to find that environmental violations are often criminal and can result in significant consequences.
For more detailed information, our federal criminal defense lawyers are reviewing the laws below.
What is an Environmental Violation?
An environmental violation is any act by an individual or company that is against environmental laws or regulations in the United States. There are several types of environmental violations, including:
- Excess smoke emissions,
- Improper storage, treatment, or disposal of hazardous waste,
- Spilling toxic or hazardous waste,
- Illegal dumping,
- Contamination of groundwater,
- Tampering with drinking water supply,
- Exceeding legal limits for pollution,
- Oil spills,
- Asbestos violations,
- Illegal importing of restricted or regulated chemicals.
This a partial list of environmental violations. The acts listed above can be charged as either federal or state crimes, depending on the facts and circumstances.
Federal Environmental Violation Laws
As noted above, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) is the main federal agency that investigates alleged federal environmental crimes.
The Environmental Crime Section (E.C.S.) is the main prosecuting agency that brings federal criminal cases against both individuals and organizations.
The E.C.S. is comprised of 43 prosecutors in addition to support staff who take the E.P.A.'s findings and prosecute alleged environmental offenders.
There are three federal environmental statutes that are the source for many federal environmental criminal prosecutions, they are:
- The Clean Water Act – 33 U.S.C § 1251-1388 (1972): Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), the E.P.A. sets pollution control standards for wastewater and quality control standards for surface waters. The CWA is the basic structure for the regulation of discharging pollutants into the waters of the United States. The EPA implemented pollution control programs like setting wastewater standards for industry.
- The Clean Air Act – 42 U.S.C. § 7401-7671(q) (1970): Under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. set national air quality standards for air emissions from both mobile and stationary sources. The CAA is the comprehensive federal law regulating air emissions and authorizes the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in order to protect public health and to regulate emitting hazardous air pollutants.
- The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) – 42 U.S.C. § 6901-6992(k) (1976): Under this Act, the E.P.A. has the authority to control hazardous waste relating to its generation, storage, treatment, transport, and disposal. RCRA also created a framework for the management of non-hazardous solid wastes. Amendments to the RCRA in 1986 enabled the EPA to deal with environmental problems that might occur from underground tanks storing petroleum and other hazardous substances.
Other important federal environmental laws regulate wildlife, fish, and worker safety, among other issues. It is common for both individuals and companies to face environmental violation charges at the federal level.
California State Environmental Violation Laws
Environmental crimes are also regulated at the state and local level in addition to the federal laws described above. At the state level, the Attorney General is tasked with enforcing state laws regarding the environment.
There are several California state statutes that are the source for most state prosecutions of environmental law violations, they are:
- The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – California Public Resources Code § 21000 et seq. (1970): Under the CEQA, all state and local agencies are required to consider environmental protection when regulating both public and private activities, and projects should not be approved if there is a better way to mitigate environmental damage and risk.
- The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (Proposition 65) (1986): Under Proposition 65, a voter-led initiative aims to protect drinking water from toxic elements that cause cancer, birth defects, or other serious health issues. Proposition 65 requires that the state to maintain an updated list of chemicals known to be the cause of cancer or reproductive toxicity.
- Hazardous materials charges under California Health and Safety Code Section 25510 HS requires handlers, employees, or agents of any type of hazardous materials, such as chemicals or flammable liquids, to immediately contact government authorities who are aware of a spill or other type of release.
The state of California generally seeks to offer more environmental protections, and its laws are considered more protective of the environment than at the federal level.
Are Environmental Crimes Serious?
While some may look at crimes against the environment as something that they don't really need to worry about, an environmental violation can result in hefty fines that can easily reach millions of dollars and jail or prison time depending on the crimes charged.
Further, you could be ordered to pay the costs of specific environmental damage which is often a significant amount.
For any business found in violation of environmental laws, it could mean they will have to make very expensive changes in the way they operate that might force them to close their business.
If you are charged with an environmental crime at the federal level, then you will be subject to federal sentencing guidelines if you are convicted.
Over a sixteen-year period from 1998-2014, the E.C.S. was responsible for over 1,000 criminal cases against individuals and over 400 cases against corporate defendants. This led to nearly 800 years of incarceration and over $825 million in fines and restitution.
If you are facing a felony environmental charge at the state level, then you will be subject to the California sentencing laws if you are convicted.
These laws help a judge determine whether an offender should be put on probation or put in jail or prison and help determine appropriate fines and restitution.
What Should I Do If I Am Charged with an Environmental Violation?
A distinguishing feature of environmental crimes is that they don't require an intent to endanger others in order to be prosecuted.
Put simply, any defendant who is just negligent in way they handle dangerous or hazardous substances that place the community at risk could be convicted for an environmental offense.
As noted above, environment crimes are treated very seriously by the United States government and under California state laws.
If you are facing an environmental violation, make sure you treat the situation as you would for any other criminal charge. Remain silent and reach out to experienced legal representation as soon as possible.
If you are under an investigation for any type of state or federal environmental crime, contact our criminal defense lawyers for an initial consultation.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and has two office locations. Call our law firm at 877-781-1570, or fill out our contact form.