Federal Environmental Prosecutions Fall to Record Low

The latest available data from the Justice Department show that during the first six months of FY 2017 the government reported 152 new environment prosecutions. If this activity continues at the same pace, the annual total of prosecutions will be 304 for this fiscal year. According to the case- by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), this estimate would be the lowest ever recorded since the Justice Department started tracking its environmental prosecutions over two decades ago.

Table 1: Criminal Environment Prosecutions
Number Year-to-date 152
Percent Change from previous year -22.6
Percent Change from 5 years ago -50.3
Percent Change from 10 years ago -67.2
Percent Change from 20 years ago -22.6

The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with environment-related offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Year-to-year comparisons suggest that FY 2017 prosecutions will be down 22.6 percent over the past fiscal year when the number of prosecutions totaled 393. This assumes trends are unchanged for the remainder of this year. See Table 1.

Compared to five years ago when there were 612 new prosecutions filed, the estimate for FY 2017 environmental prosecutions is down 50.3 percent. Prosecutions over the past six months are also much lower than they were ten years ago when the annual number of defendants accused of breaking criminal environmental laws peaked at 927.

The long term trend in environment prosecutions for these matters going back to FY 1997 is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of environmental prosecutions recorded each fiscal year. Projected figures for the current fiscal year are shown. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars.

Figure 1: Criminal Environment Prosecutions over the last 20 years

Categories of Environmental Crimes

The single largest number of prosecutions of these matters was for environmental crimes related to protecting the nation's wildlife. During the first six months of FY 2017, these types of offenses accounted for 57.9 percent of total prosecutions.

As shown in Figure 2, over a third (38.8%) of the remaining matters were prosecutions U.S. attorneys classified under the general category simply of "environmental crimes." The "other" category in Figure 2 is comprised of a diverse group of programs. The largest specific programs within the "other" category were for offenses related to marine resources (3.3%).

Fourteen out of the 152 involved prosecution of businesses. The rest were individuals. Businesses were primarily prosecuted for water pollution under 33 U.S.C. 1319 and for air pollution under 42 U.S.C. 7413.

Leading Investigative Agencies

Environmental referrals to federal prosecutors that led to these prosecutions chiefly came from two federal agencies. The Department of Interior was the lead investigative agency for nearly half (48.7%) of these cases during the first half of FY 2017. Another one out of five (21.1%) were from investigations led by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As shown in Figure 3, additional agencies with substantial numbers of environment referrals were: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (9.9%), the Department of Agriculture (7.9%), and the Commerce Department (3.3%). Other agencies with environmental referrals included the Department of Homeland Security and other components of the Justice Department.

Figure 2: Specific types of prosecutions

Figure 3: Prosecutions by Investigative Agency

Top Ranked Lead Charges

Table 2 shows the top lead charges recorded in the prosecutions of environment matters filed so far this year.

Illegally taken fish and wildlife, violations under Title 16 U.S.C Section 3372, were the most frequent recorded lead charges. This offense has consistently ranked either first or second among all environmental cases over the past two decades.

Ranked second in frequency was the lead charge of running an animal fighting venture, prohibited under Title 7 U.S.C Section 2156. Its appearance in the top ranked charges was somewhat unusual this year. (There were an additional four prosecutions for enforcement of animal fighting offenses under 18 U.S.C. 49.)

Among the top ten lead charges, the one showing the sharpest projected decline in prosecutions compared to one year ago-down 80 percent-were prosecutions under a federal regulation, rather than a statutory provision.

Table 2: Top charges filed
Lead Charge Count Rank 1 yr ago 5 yrs ago 10 yrs ago 20 yrs ago
16 USC 3372 - Illegally Taken Fish & Wildlife - prohibited acts 22 1 2 2 2 2
07 USC 2156 - Animal Fighting Venture Prohibited 16 2 10 - - 20
42 USC 7413 - Air Pollution Prevention and Control - Fed strd 13 4 14 4 14 5
33 USC 1319 - Water Pollution - Enforcement 12 5 6 5 4 1
16 USC 703 - Taking, killing, or possessing migratory birds 10 6 3 1 1 3
18 USC 371 - Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud US 7 7 7 15 8 7
Federal Regulation 7 7 1 11 17 -
16 USC 1538 - Endangered Species - Prohibitive acts 6 9 10 11 14 8
18 USC 1001 - Fraud/false statements or entries generally 5 10 30 6 6 8

Top Ranked Judicial Districts

Thus far, the Western District of Louisiana (Shreveport) and Alaska were the most active districts in the country in terms of environmental prosecutions relative to their population. The per capita rate of federal environmental prosecutions in each of these two districts was over 20 times the national average during the first six months of FY 2017. Both of these districts have fairly consistently been ranked as among the most active over the years in criminally prosecuting environmental offenders.

Prosecutions for violations of federal protections for marine mammals and illegally taking fish and wildlife were the type of offenses prosecuted in Alaska, while in Louisiana violations of federal regulations involving wildlife refuge areas were more common.

In terms of the sheer numbers, the Western District of Louisiana again ranked first with 22 environmental prosecutions during the first six months of FY 2017. In second place was the Central District of Illinois (Springfield) with 10 prosecutions. All were part of a single case involving prohibited animal fighting ventures.

In third place was the Central District of California (Los Angeles). Offenses there followed a somewhat different pattern than in these other districts. Offenses ranged from fraud or making false statements, other conspiracies to commit offenses or defraud the U.S. on some environmental matter, or violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Table 3: Top 10 districts (per one million people)
Judicial District Percapita Count Rank 1yr ago 5yrs ago 10yrs ago 20yrs ago
La, W 20 22 1 1 6 1 38
Alaska 20 7 2 2 3 4 1
Ala, S 9 4 3 67 8 7 25
Ill, C 9 10 4 49 71 38 65
Miss, N 9 5 5 6 2 48 17
Wyoming 7 2 6 3 9 11 2
Ala, M 5 3 7 - 19 - 75
La, E 5 4 8 5 1 3 21
S Dakota 5 2 9 8 4 6 16
Delaware 4 2 10 12 71 77 39

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.