Fewer Criminal Prosecution of Environmental Crimes Under Trump
The latest available data from the Justice Department shows that during FY 2019 the government reported 302 new environment prosecutions. Environmental prosecutions under Trump have averaged 306 per year. According to case-by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, this number was fewer than during any year of the Obama, Bush, or Clinton Administrations going back to the mid 1990's. See Table 1
Table 1: Federal Criminal Environment Prosecutions
Compared to five years ago when there were 335 environmental prosecutions, environmental prosecutions are down 9.9 percent. Prosecutions over the past year are also much lower than they were ten years or even twenty years ago. Overall, the data show that prosecutions of this type are down 38.5 percent from the level of 491 reported in FY 2009 and down 64.5 percent from the level of 850 reported in FY 1999.
Diverse Environmental Laws Enforced by Different Agencies
There is wide diversity in laws governing the protection of the environment. Different agencies often focus on enforcing different laws. The Interior Department, for example, through its Fish and Wildlife Service and its Bureau of Land Management has been the lead investigative agency for the largest number of federal environmental prosecutions over the years. During FY 2019 its investigative efforts resulted in just over half of federal environmental prosecutions - 154 out of the total of 302. These criminal offenses involved such matters as illegally taking fish and wildlife, violation of migratory birds and endangered species provisions, and prohibited hunting or other failures to follow regulations on the use of public lands. Fish and Wildlife officers also caught individuals smuggling goods in or out of the United States. Almost all prosecutions were misdemeanors or petty offenses. Those convicted usually receive a small fine. Rarely did they receive jail or probation time.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been the second most active in investigating environmental offenses. Last year its referrals resulted in 62 prosecutions - or roughly one out of every five. EPA focuses on violations of statutes protecting our air and water, restricting hazardous waste disposal, and controlling toxic substances. Fraud statutes were sometimes used. Businesses as well as individuals were subject to these prosecutions. Penalties invoked in additional to fines were probation time, and on occasion prison terms.
The Coast Guard now housed within the Department of Homeland Security was the lead investigative agency for 36 out of the 302 environmental prosecutions last year. These offenses typically involved the prevention of pollution from ships where prosecutions involved companies as well as individuals. They often resulted in significant fines as well as probation time. Rarely was anyone sentenced to prison.
The fourth most active agency in enforcing environmental statutes during FY 2019 was the Forest Service. Its investigations led to 9 percent of prosecutions last year. About half of these involved illegal operation of vehicles on federal lands. Like those violations enforced by the Interior Department, these were minor misdemeanors resulting in small fines.
Figure 1. Criminal Environmental Prosecutions
in FY 2019
by Lead Investigative Agency
(Click for larger image)
Environmental Enforcement Trends by Agency
While Interior and EPA have typically been the two most active agencies in environmental enforcement since the Justice Department began systematically tracking environmental prosecutions beginning in FY 1986, their relative dominance has shifted. EPA was initially the most active agency. Starting in 1995 prosecutions referred by the Interior Department suddenly shot up and have remained higher than EPA's since then.
The downward slide in environmental prosecutions over the last two decades has been shared by both agencies. Although there has been considerable year-to-year fluctuations in Interior's environmental prosecutions, those from both agencies peaked around 2001 and have been generally falling since then.
If agencies were ranked by the total number of environmental prosecutions during the entire FY 1986 - FY 2019 period, then the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would be ranked third. While having a much smaller footprint than Interior or the EPA, the FBI played a visible role in environmental enforcement until the agency shifted its focus to other matters after 9/11. The long term trend in environment prosecutions over more than three decades back to the Clinton Administration is shown more clearly in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Criminal Environmental Prosecutions by Lead Investigative Agency, FY 1987 - FY 2019
(Click for larger image)
Two small to be further broken out are the diverse array of federal agencies that comprise the "All Other" category in Figure 1. Largest among these is the Coast Guard, the Forest Service, and during parts of the period, the Commerce Department typically through its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Trends for agencies within this "All Other" category are shown in Figure 3. Note that the scale is enlarged from Figure 3 so that contributions by these agencies can be more clearly discerned.
Figure 3. Other Agency Investigations Resulting in Environmental Prosecutions, FY 1987 - FY 2019
(Click for larger image)
District Environmental Enforcement Patterns
It should not be surprising that federal judicial districts in which environmental prosecutions occur often differ depending upon whether enforcement patterns of the Interior Department or those of the EPA are examined. These two agencies enforce quite different sets of federal environmental laws, and the types of offenses that occur are likely to differ in different parts of the country. The availability of enforcement personnel as well as priorities set within separate offices as to how and where to concentrate their efforts also vary.
Table 2 provides detailed statistics on environmental enforcement patterns in each federal judicial district. The left panel of Table 2 provides information on the number of prosecutions, while the right panel displays the annual rate of prosecutions relative to the population size of each district. Separate columns present figures overall, as well as separately for Interior and for EPA. In each column, those districts which ranked in the top five on that criteria are highlighted.
For example, the three districts in Louisiana often rank in the top 5 for both their number and rate of prosecutions for illegally taking fish and wildlife investigated by the Interior Department, while only the Middle District of Louisiana (Baton Rouge) rates within the top five districts for criminal prosecutions investigated by the EPA. See Table 2.
Alaska and Wyoming both have particularly high rates of prosecutions overall but this primarily reflects fish and wildlife violations brought about by investigations by Interior. Despite concentrations of extractive industries in both states, they don't rate as highly for prosecutions of environmental crimes investigated by the EPA. Although in FY 2019, Alaska had five prosecutions resulting from investigations of ocean dumping and air pollution by the EPA.
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.