Review of Federal and State of California Environmental Crimes and Penalties
There are several state and federal laws designed to protect environmental interests. Violations of these laws usually result in huge fines and other harsh penalties.
If you were accused of specific environmental crimes, you could not only face some jail time but might also be ordered to pay the costs of the resulting cleanup. In other words, violations of environmental laws include civil sanctions and criminal penalties.
You could be told to pay the costs of specific environmental damage, which can be significant.
A business that has violated environmental laws might be forced to make expensive changes in the way they operate, resulting in the closure of their company.
Environmental crimes are generally described as offenses that endanger the community through dumping, leaking, or other ways of introducing toxic chemicals or other substances into the environment.
Environmental crimes can be intentional, such as illegal dumping, or they can be the result of negligence in handling dangerous substances.
This article by our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will review the commonly-used provisions of California laws and federal laws which punish environmental crimes.
Federal Environmental Laws
In recent years, given the growing concerns over global warming, the federal government has been focusing more enforcement efforts on violations of environmental laws.
There are dozens of laws on the books detailing environmental crimes and the penalties for committing them.
The EPA's Criminal Enforcement Division frequently collaborates with the DOJ's Environmental Crimes Section to investigate and prosecute violations of these laws.
The federal government has more than 50 laws detailing various environmental crimes. These laws range from wide-sweeping protections for natural resources (e.g., water and air) to specific laws protecting certain species of animals.
However, they can be loosely classified within four main categories of environmental protection:
This group of laws makes it a crime to pollute the natural resources in our environment. Examples include the following:
- Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7401-7671q;
- Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251-1388;
- Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), 7 U.S.C. §§ 136y;
- Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), 15 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2697;
- Noise Control Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4901-4918;
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 6901-6992k.
These laws seek to protect various forms of wildlife within our ecosystems. Examples include:
- Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 661-667e;
- Migratory Bird Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 715-715r;
- Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544.
Animal Welfare Laws
These laws primarily deal with the responsible and humane treatment of animals under our care or cultivated for food and products. Examples include:
- Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 1901-1907;
- Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131-2159;
- Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2156, 18 U.S.C. § 49.
Worker Safety Crimes
These laws deal with the environmental health and safety of workers. Examples include:
- Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 651;
- Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1801-1872;
- Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA) of 1977, 30 U.S.C. §§ 801-966;
Prosecution of Environmental Crimes
While many of the most significant environmental violations are committed by businesses, the federal government prosecutes both individuals and corporations for environmental crimes.
The EPA Criminal Enforcement Division reports that in 2020, 89 percent of all its environmental criminal cases were filed against individuals, with a 94 percent conviction rate.
Despite many environmental laws, most environmental crimes prosecuted by the federal government fall under a handful of these laws. Let's look at three of the most common types of environmental violations.
Clean Water Act Violations
The Clean Water Act (CWA) broadly protects all the "waters of the United States," including on public lands and privately owned waterways and bodies of water.
The CWA makes it a crime to dump pollutants, debris, or waste into these waterways, facilitate such pollution, or falsify compliance with clean water laws. Common violations include:
- Illegally dumping sewage, industrial waste, chemicals, radioactive materials, or other forms of debris into navigable waterways without special permits;
- Dumping hazardous waste products into a sewer system or water treatment facility.;
- Discharging oil into the waters off U.S. shores.
Clean Air Act Violations
The Clean Air Act (CAA) seeks to safeguard air quality in the U.S. and limit the amount and type of toxins introduced into the air. Common violations of the CAA include:
- Building or importing vehicles that violate CAA emissions standards;
- Tampering with emission control devices in vehicles;
- Improper disposal of asbestos;
- Emitting hazardous/dangerous pollutants into the air in a way that endangers others;
- Constructing or modifying a building that violates national emissions standards or emits hazardous pollutants.
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulates the treatment, transport, storage, recycling, and disposal of hazardous waste to prevent contamination of the environment. Examples of illegal activities under RCRA include:
- Transporting unidentified hazardous waste or used oil without an accompanying manifest;
- Falsifying labels, reports, or other documents filed with the government regarding waste;
- Generating, storing, transporting, or disposing of unidentified hazardous wastes without proper documentation or proper permits;
California Environmental Laws
California also has several laws related to environmental crimes that carry severe civil and criminal penalties. California has some of the strictest laws in the United States dealing with environmental issues. The most common include the following:
- Penal Code 372 PC – public nuisance law that criminalizes the creation, maintenance, or failure to remove a “public nuisance,” which is anything that endangers the health, safety, or morals of the community;
- Penal Code 25510 PC – hazardous materials law requires handlers of dangerous materials, such as chemicals or flammable liquids, who become aware of a spill to contact government authorities immediately;
- Health and Safety Code Section 25189.5 HS – improper disposal of hazardous waste law covers the inappropriate disposal of dangerous waste. It criminalizes disposing of, transporting, or storing waste without a permit;
- Health and Safety Code Section 25189.6 – reckless handling of hazardous materials criminalizes improper handling, transportation, disposal, or storage of dangerous materials that create a risk of injury or death.
What are the Penalties for Environmental Crimes?
Understandably, the penalties for a conviction of environmental crimes charges range widely depending on the law violated and the circumstances.
As a rule of thumb, sentences tend to be more severe when you purposely try to conceal your violations from the government or if you knowingly endanger other people in committing these crimes.
Speaking generally, misdemeanor convictions may result in fines and up to a year in prison. At the same time, more severe or dangerous violations may generate sentences of up to 15 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.
Suppose you were arrested, or your business is under investigation for an environmental offense in California. In that case, you need to seek experienced legal representation to have the best chance at a favorable outcome.
Depending on your jurisdiction, other environmental laws could exist under city or county municipal ordinances depending on your jurisdiction.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a criminal defense law firm based in Los Angeles County, and we serve people throughout California.
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