Regional Differences in Pollution Prosecutions in the Bush Years

Not all federal judicial districts are created equal when it comes to federal prosecutors bringing criminal charges against individuals and businesses thought by the investigative agencies to have violated the nation's pollution laws, according to a unique new data base developed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The analysis of the district-by-district variation in how federal prosecutors handle pollution violators around the country was based on very detailed information obtained from the Justice Department by TRAC. The data in this case focus on the actions of the U.S. Attorneys operating in each of the 90 federal districts in the United States during the Bush Administration.

This totally new analysis is one in a series of special TRAC bulletins describing various aspects of how the federal government has enforced the environmental laws in recent years. With it, complete counts are available regarding all individuals who have been targeted for violating any one of more than 1,400 statutes, not just those cases where the prosecutors designated an environmental violation as the "lead charge." The data show that from the beginning of FY 2001 through the first quarter of FY 2004 federal prosecutors considered filing one or more pollution charges against 1,600 individuals and businesses. This bulletin focuses on environmental charges involving pollution issues -- air, water, hazardous waste, etc. Other bulletins will focus on other environmental areas, such as wildlife preservation, protecting the national forests, safeguarding public lands and guarding archeological resources.

Prosecution Often Declined

But, as fully authorized by federal law and practice, the U.S. Attorneys and their assistants throughout the country declined to prosecute well over half (922) of these individuals -- or 58 percent. On each of these, however, investigative agencies had referred the matter to federal prosecutors believing the evidence indicated they were criminal violators. See pie chart.

Among the most commonly cited reasons for declining to prosecute were weak evidence, lack of criminal intent, and agency request or office policy. See the table below for details.

Prosecutions Declined
FY 2001 - 1st Quarter FY 2004
Disposition Reason Number Percent
All 922 100.0
Weak or insufficient
admissible evidence
259 28.1
Lack of evidence of
criminal intent
178 19.3
Agency request/office policy 117 12.7
No federal offense evident 73 7.9
Other disciplinary alternatives 56 6.1
Lack of resources 42 4.6
Minimal federal interest 26 2.8
Other 171 18.5

District Patterns

Variation in the extent to which the individual U.S. Attorneys -- almost all of them appointed to office by the president -- choose to exercise their discretion is considerable.

Here, for example, is what the records show about a number of different districts around the country since 2001.

  • In the Tampa area, Florida Middle, the U.S. Attorneys office for one reason or another declined to file criminal charges against nine out of ten of the 55 individuals or businesses the agencies had recommended be charged with criminal pollution violations. For active districts, this was the highest "declination rate" in the country.

  • In Alaska and the Mobile area in Alabama, Alabama South, the U.S. Attorneys chose to decline more than four out of five of the pollution matters.

  • In the areas around Los Angeles and St Louis, California Central and Missouri East, federal prosecutors declined less than half.

  • Among the busier districts where the prosecutors chose to move ahead on a high proportion of the pollution cases was Miami, Florida South, where less than one out of five were rejected. (The outcome in Miami is in stark contrast to the record for Tampa.)

Widespread District Variation
in Environmental Enforcement
During the Bush Years

(see table)

For information about each of the districts, see the table linked from the box at left.

Although individual U.S. Attorneys have in fact been granted a great deal of power in setting the enforcement priorities of their offices, other factors also should be recognized. Some areas may have much more serious pollution problems than other areas. The quality of federal investigators varies around the country, with some being more effective in developing their cases than others. In certain areas, state and local environmental agencies are more aggressive and thus can play a bigger role in enforcing the pollution laws in the geographic region covered by a particular federal office.