With reports of a $16 billion Justice Department settlement with Bank of America following on the heels of other big payouts by misbehaving banks, it may seem that corporate crime these days is mainly an issue for the financial sector. The big banks have plenty of blemishes on their record, but then again so do other large corporations when it comes to areas such as environmental compliance.
After all, it was only four months ago that Anadarko Petroleum had to pay $5.1 billion to resolve federal charges that had been brought in connection with the clean-up of thousands of toxic waste sites around the country resulting from decades of questionable practices by Kerr-McGee, now a subsidiary of Anadarko. This settlement set a record for an environmental case, surpassing the $4 billion in penalties BP had to pay in 2012 as part of its guilty plea on criminal charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite high-profile cases such as these, environmental offenses are being prosecuted in a less than vigorous manner. This problem is brought home in a recent analysis by The Crime Report website produced at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
In a review of enforcement data in the EPA’s ECHO database, The Crime Report found that the agency has become increasingly disinclined to bring criminal rather than civil charges against violators. In recent years, the report notes, fewer than one-half of one percent of violations trigger criminal investigations, which require the involvement of the Justice Department to proceed in court.
Part of the problem is that criminal cases are much more difficult to pursue. The Crime Report quotes attorney Mark Roberts of the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency as saying: “I think a criminal prosecution will be defended much harder … If you’re in that tiny percentage that gets charged criminally, you want to win.”
While delivering the bad news about weak prosecution, The Crime Report makes it easier for researchers and activists to access data about environmental violations. It took data from ECHO and created an interactive map that provides summaries by EPA region and by urban area, and also allows zooming in on specific facilities. When an urban area is chosen on the map, a table appears below showing the largest penalties overall, with breakdowns by categories such as Clean Air Act violations and Clean Water Act violations.
This is especially useful for clusters of heavily polluting facilities such as those in what is informally known as Cancer Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Yet a look at the data for this area shows the limitations not only of the EPA’s criminal prosecutions but its enforcement activity in general. Drilling down shows dozens of facilities that were often found to be in non-compliance yet were hit with little or nothing in the way of penalties during the past five years.
There are some fairly significant fines, such as the $198,000 paid by PCS Nitrogen in Geismar and the $84,000 paid by the Total Petroleum Styrene Monomer Plant in Carville. Yet, for the most part, the data paint a picture that is a far cry from the right’s depiction of the EPA as a tyrannical force preying on defenseless businesses.
Whether it is in banking or petrochemicals, aggressive prosecutions are the only way to get large corporations to clean up their act.