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Environmental Crime Legal Framework in United States of America

The United States’ constitution, indirectly, provides the federal government with power to regulate on behalf of environmental quality, but it also sets limits on the power. It does not, however, grant a "constitutional right to a clean environment". Rather, various statutes and regulations are invoked to protect the environment. A statute is a law passed by Congress, while a regulation is a law promulgated by a federal agency. Congress passes a law with a general goal in mind and this statute formally empowers the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an independent agency of the federal government, to issue regulations about what companies must do to protect the environment. Congress also gives money to the EPA to enforce those rules. Some of that money is supposed to go to states, who will enforce some of the regulations themselves.

Featured Legislation

1970: The National Environmental Policy Act was passed. This Act establishes the broad national framework for protecting the environment. It promotes efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and requires all executive federal agencies to give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. Federal agencies shall prepare environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs). It established a Council on Environmental Quality. The Chapter is divided into three sections: the first section outlines national environmental policies and goals; the second establishes provisions for federal agencies to enforce such policies and goals; and the third establishes the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President. NEPA covers a vast array of federal agency actions, but the Act does not apply to state action where there is a complete absence of federal influence or funding. Exemptions and exclusions are also present within NEPA’s guidelines, including specific federal projects detailed in legislation and EPA exemptions. Exemptions also apply when compliance with other environmental laws require an impact analysis similar to that mandated by NEPA. Such laws can include but are not limited to the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.

1972: The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) was enacted. The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. It establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. It shall be unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) of the Environment Protection Agency permits program control discharges. Individual homes that are connected to a municipal system, use a septic system, or do not have a surface discharge do not need an NPDES permit; however, industrial, municipal, and other facilities must obtain permits if their discharges go directly to surface waters.

1972: The Marine Mammal Protection Act was signed. This Act establishes a Federal responsibility to conserve marine mammals with management vested in the Department of Interior and the Department of Commerce. With certain specified exceptions (taking for subsistence by local populations and for research), the Act establishes a moratorium on the taking and importation of marine mammals as well as products taken from them, and establishes procedures for waiving the moratorium and transferring management responsibility to the States. The Act authorizes the establishment of a Marine Mammal Commission with specific advisory and research duties. Annual reports to Congress by the Departments of Interior and Commerce and the Marine Mammal Commission are required. The offshore jurisdiction of the Act is the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. Conditions for taking of marine mammals also regard importing fish and fish products from nations engaged in harvesting yellowfin tuna with purse seines as well as other commercial fishing activities. The Act also concerns the preparation of conservation plans for any species listed as “depleted", including a requirement that such plans be modeled after recovery plans developed pursuant to the Endangered Species Act; powers to protect essential marine mammal habitat and trophies of endangered animals.

1976: The National Forest Management Act was created. This Act is the main state governing the administration of national forests. It declares that the National Forest System consists of units of federally owned forest, range and related lands throughout the U.S. and its territories, united into one integral system for the long-term benefit of present and future generations. The Act requires the Secretary of Agriculture (Secretary) to assess forest lands, develop a management program based on multiple-use, sustained-yield principles, and develop and implement a resource management plan for each unit of the National Forest System. The Secretary is required to prepare a Renewable Resource Assessment and to update the assessment every ten years. The Act specifies the broad inventory and policy information the assessment must contain. The Secretary must provide opportunity for public involvement and must consult with other interested governmental agencies. As part of the assessment, the Secretary must develop and maintain a comprehensive inventory of all National Forest System lands and renewable resources. The inventory must be kept current and must identify new and emerging resources and values. The Act also requires the Secretary to develop and implement resource management plans for each unit of the National Forest System. he Act establishes the Reforestation Trust Fund to finance reforestation and timber stand improvements on National Forest lands.

1990: The Clean Air Act was promulgated. The objective of the Clean Air Act is to protect human health, welfare, and the environment by maintaining and improving the quality of the air through the development of standards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes national standards for ambient air quality and the states shall implement, maintain, and enforce these standards through a variety of mechanisms. EPA has established national ambient air quality standards to limit levels of “criteria pollutants". Each state must develop a State Implementation Plan (SIP) to identify sources of air pollution and to determine what reductions are required to meet federal air quality standards. EPA also establishes and enforces national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants and nationally uniform standards oriented towards controlling particular hazardous air pollutants. Each state must develop a State Implementation Plan to identify the sources of air pollution and to determine what reductions are required to meet federal air quality standards. The Plan shall indicate, among other things, the degree to which ambient air emissions from farming practices specific to a geographic area within each state are allowed.

1990: The Environmental Education Act was introduced. This Act establishes the Office of Environmental Education within the Environmental Protection Agency to develop and administer a Federal environmental education program. Responsibilities of the Office include developing and supporting programs to improve understanding of the natural and developed environment. The Office is required to develop and support environmental programs in consultation with other Federal natural resource management agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service.

2011: The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was brought into force. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) gives the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to control hazardous waste in its full cycle." This includes the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA also set forth a framework for the management of non-hazardous solid wastes. The Act also set forth a framework for the management of non-hazardous solid wastes. The objectives of this Chapter are to promote the protection of health and the environment and to conserve valuable material and energy resources by, among other things— (1) providing technical and financial assistance to State and local governments and interstate agencies for the development of solid waste management plans (including resource recovery and resource conservation systems) which will promote improved solid waste management techniques (including more effective organizational arrangements), new and improved methods of collection, separation (2) providing training grants in occupations involving the design, operation, and maintenance of solid waste disposal systems; (3) prohibiting future open dumping on the land and requiring the conversion of existing open dumps to facilities which do not pose a danger to the environment or to health; (4) assuring that hazardous waste management practices are conducted in a manner which protects human health and the environment; (5) requiring that hazardous waste be properly managed in the first instance thereby reducing the need for corrective action at a future date; (6) minimizing the generation of hazardous waste and the land disposal of hazardous waste by encouraging process substitution, materials recovery, properly conducted recycling and reuse, and treatment; (7) establishing a viable Federal-State partnership to carry out the purposes of this Chapter and insuring that the Administrator will, in carrying out the provisions of Subchapter III of this Chapter, give a high priority to assisting and cooperating with States in obtaining full authorization of State programs under Subchapter III of this Chapter; (8) providing for the promulgation of guidelines for solid waste collection, transport, separation, recovery, and disposal practices and systems.

Featured Case Studies: Transnational Environmental Crime, Human Security, and Biosecurity

  • In May 2022: The United States Attorney General announced the creation of the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) within the Department of Justice. The OEJ will manage DOJ’s environmental justice projects and serve as the central hub for efforts to advance comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategies, addressing the “harm” caused by environmental crime, pollution, and climate change. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland remarked that OEJ will “prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm” in partnership with the Civil Rights Division, Office for Access to Justice, Office of Tribal Justice, and United States Attorneys’ Offices. The OEJ will monitor violations of environmental laws (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act). Consider, for a moment, false certification of environmental law compliance and how it harms taxpayers, workers, residents, and the environment for generations. Companies will face appropriate consequences if they misrepresent their eligibility to participate in federal programs and divert resources from those who should receive federal support. The OEJ empowers employees of manufacturers, contractors, construction companies, power plants, and others who receive government funds to report environmentally hazardous misconduct, so that businessmen and companies that lie to get their hands on taxpayer money will be held accountable for their actions. In 2019, the DOJ settled a case against a domestic producer of Omega-3 fish oil supplements, fishmeal, and fish solubles for livestock and aquaculture feed. The producer allegedly falsely certified compliance with federal environmental laws on a loan application. Under the terms of the settlement, the fish oil producer paid $1 million. A former employee blew the whistle on their employer’s fishy business and was rewarded $200,000 as part of a qui tam lawsuit.

References and Further Reading


Environmental Protection Agency: olem.cleanup@epa.gov .