Enforcement of Environmental Laws in the US on the Rise

Posted on November 1, 2011 by Jarred Taylor

In the US, criminal prosecution of environmental violations is on the rise.  Environmental enforcement remains one of the few areas in which government resources continue to grow.  USEPA’s criminal enforcement program has more than 350 specially trained investigators, chemists, engineers, technicians, lawyers, and support staff.  USEPA opened 346 new environmental crime cases in 2010, the second highest number of new cases since 2005.

In 2010, at just the US federal level, criminal charges were brought against 289 defendants, a 45% increase over 2009 and the highest number since 2005.  251 of the 289 cases (87%) included charges against at least one individual defendant, as opposed to a business or corporation.  Of the cases completed during 2010, 88% resulted in either a guilty plea or conviction at trial.  Defendants convicted of environmental crimes in 2010 were assessed a total of $41 million in fines and restitution and were ordered to pay $18 million for environmental projects, an 80% increase over the previous year.

Since 1990, when 75% of all environmental criminal charges were brought against companies, the focus has changed dramatically, with nearly 75% of such charges now being brought against individuals.  Multiple violations can be stacked (aggregated) for purposes of sentencing, meaning that even misdemeanor violations may result in jail terms of over one year.  In 2010, individual criminal defendants were sentenced to a total of 72 years of jail time.

These statistics, the resources being devoted to criminal enforcement, and the often low burden of proof needed to obtain a conviction, demonstrate that the prosecution of environmental criminal liabilities will only increase in future years in the US. 



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