Federal Prosecution of Environmental Crimes Continues to Drop

The latest available data from the Justice Department shows that during the 12 months of fiscal year 2018, ending in September, the government reported prosecuting 109 new environmental crimes. Of these 29 defendants were businesses. The rest were individuals. According to the case-by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, this number is down 10.7 percent over the past fiscal year when the number of prosecutions totaled 122.

Table 1. Environmental Crimes Prosecutions
Number Year-to-date 109
Percent Change from previous year -10.7
Percent Change from 5 years ago -39.8
Percent Change from 10 years ago -30.1
Percent Change from 20 years ago -48.3

Environmental crimes cover offenses related to hazardous wastes, toxic substances and the protection of land, water and air. The lead charge typically involves statutes covering water pollution (33 USC 1311, 1319, and 1908), hazardous waste management (42 USC 6928), hazardous materials transport (49 USC 5124), air pollution (42 USC 7413), environmental pesticide control (7 USC 136), and meat inspection (21 USC 610). Prosecutions can also be bought for fraud or making false statements under 18 USC 1001 when related to these environmental matters. (There is a separate program category for wildlife protection, so prosecutions listed under this program category are not included in these counts.)

Over half (58%) of all of these environmental crimes were referred to federal prosecutors by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Interior Department was responsible for referring 15 percent. Homeland Security accounted for another 8 percent, followed by the Department of Transportation with 5 percent. The rest were comprised of a diverse group of agencies from the Agriculture Department to Veterans Administration that referred no more than a few cases each.

The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with environmental offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC through successful litigation under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (see Table 1).

The long term trend in these environmental prosecutions going back for two decades is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of environmental crime prosecutions of this type recorded each fiscal year. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars.

Compared to five years ago when there were 181, the number of prosecutions for this latest year is down 39.8 percent. Prosecutions over the past year are also lower than they were ten years ago. Overall, the data show that prosecutions of this type are down 30.1 percent from the level of 156 reported in 2008, and down 48.3 percent from the level of 211 reported in 1998.

Figure 1. Criminal Environ-Environmental Crimes Prosecutions over the last 20 years

Top Ranked Judicial Districts

Relative to the country's population, environmental prosecutions were rare. For every ten million residents, on average just 3 persons were publicly charged with committing environmental crimes. There is, however, great variation in the per capita number of environmental crime prosecutions in each of the nation's ninety-four federal judicial districts. A total of 38 of these districts prosecuted at least one environmental crime during FY 2018, while the remaining 56 did not prosecute a single defendant for any alleged environmental offense.

In terms of sheer numbers, the Central District of California (Los Angeles) was the most active. That district brought 22 prosecutions involving 13 individuals and 9 businesses. Because of its large population, on a per capita basis it was only eleventh in the rankings. Its prosecution rate was more than three times the national average.

Kansas prosecuted the second highest number of parties, although all seven of these - three businesses and four individuals - were prosecuted in a single large case involving air pollution violations. On a per capita basis that district ranked third.

Relative to its population size, Montana ranked first with over 16 times the national per capita prosecution rate. The U.S. Attorney Office there prosecuted 6 parties - one business and five individuals -- for a range of different environmental crimes.

While the Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston) prosecuted just 2 cases involving one business and two individuals, on a per capita basis given its relatively small population, it ranked second with over nine times the national per capita prosecution rate.

Finally, the federal judicial district which showed the greatest growth in the rate of environmental crime prosecutions compared to one year ago was Kansas. Compared to five years ago, the district with the largest growth was Montana.

TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to http://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.