Environmental Crime Essay

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Environmental crime is among the most controversial categories of illicit activity within the parameters of defining social problems. Some scholars simply classify it as a form of white-collar crime, because the motivating factor behind committing such offenses is frequently financial gain. Federal enforcement entities consider the term more broadly, deeming actions such as killing endangered wildlife or illegally releasing toxic substances into public drinking water or agricultural production as posing serious risk to the public because of the long-term harm such actions may pose to society. Last, human rights advocates proffer that workers exposed to hazardous materials without proper health and safety equipment or training, and the deliberate placement of chemical plants and hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities in economically disadvantaged areas, are forms of political crime because those at the lowest stratum of the socioeconomic scale lack a voice in protecting themselves and their families when compared with constituents from wealthier communities. Collectively, this problem is referred to as the challenge of attaining environmental justice.

Financial Motivation

What induces large manufacturing corporations, small home contracting companies, and individuals to commit acts such as illegally dumping hazardous waste, improperly removing asbestos and lead-based paint, and poaching rare and exotic flora and fauna? In each case, the response is but one word: money.

The proper treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous wastes are expensive, and many businesses are willing to chance getting caught because the risks outweigh the costs. For example, in a 2001 U.S. district court judgment against ExxonMobil, the company acknowledged that from 1991 to 1993, it had improperly stored and disposed of benzene—a known cancer-causing agent found in petroleum products—at its product storage and distribution facility in Staten Island, New York. Although ExxonMobil paid a hefty US$11.2 million in penalties (one of the largest settlements in U.S. history), it was the equivalent of just 3 months’ salary enjoyed by ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive officer Lee R. Raymond.

For smaller companies such as home contractors, meeting strict environmental regulations may prove cost prohibitive when compared with their larger competitors. Consider the disposal of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) found in household pipe insulation, boilers, and furnaces. To properly manage ACMs requires laboratory testing, removal by a state-licensed technician, and a postremediation inspection by a certified professional. A self-employed home remodeling contractor may be willing to risk his own health (or worse yet, the long-term health of the household’s unsuspecting occupants for whom the work was completed) to bring the job in at a lower estimate than that of his larger competitor.

Profit is also the primary motivation for wildlife poachers and for those who illegally traffic in wildlife parts. For example, the gallbladder of a common black bear can net anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 on the underground market because some cultures believe it has medicinal value. An individual bowl of bear paw soup can cost as much as $1,000 in Asia. Worldwide, the profit associated with threatened and endangered species is even greater, as seen, for example, in the $2,300-per-pound premium for African rhino horn (purportedly an aphrodisiac in some cultures) or the sale of more than 5,000 elephant tusks in 1999, which netted traffickers about $5 million. At present, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that the global trade in illegal wildlife parts exceeds $20 billion annually.


To reduce the profit motivation for large corporations and smaller businesses and individuals engaging in the improper disposal of hazardous wastes, Congress enacted a variety of environmental laws from the 1970s through the early 1990s. These statutes protect air, soil, and water from the risks of contamination posed by industrial chemical residues and heavy metals common in the manufacturing process.

Among the most important of the initial laws passed during this era were the Clean Air Act of 1970 (CAA) and the Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA). The CAA radically improved upon previous air quality laws passed in the 1950s and 1960s by mandating acceptable levels of airborne contaminants that could be released by manufacturers, energy producers, and industrial facilities into the environment. It also established a timetable by which facilities must meet these thresholds and imposed civil and criminal penalties for those entities unable or unwilling to do so.

Similarly, the CWA created a permit requirement system for releasing toxins into the environment, especially in areas where surface waters may be located or rainfall runoff could feed into riverways, lakes, ponds, or drinking water reservoirs. By mandating that businesses obtain effluent discharge permits via the

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or its authorized state representative, the government was better able to control potential pollutant risks to humans and wildlife. The CWA also provided federal funding to build and upgrade sewage treatment plants throughout the United States, further reducing contamination posed by bacteriological and chemical hazards.

Following the successes of the CAA and CWA, Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 and the Solid Waste Disposal Act—commonly referred to as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—in 1976. The Safe Drinking Water Act was designed to protect the nation’s drinking water supply from the risk of contamination posed by faulty public water supply piping (which often contained high levels of lead or copper). The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act also strove to reduce contamination to drinking water wells and groundwater from public landfills (e.g., from leaking batteries, cleaning products, solvents, thinners, pesticides). Last, the Safe Drinking Water Act established specific maximum allowable concentrations for heavy metals and chemicals in drinking water, while the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act specifically banned substances that were deemed toxic, reactive, ignitable, or corrosive from public landfills and required that these substances instead be taken to EPA-licensed treatment, storage, and disposal facilities for proper handling.

Armed with these laws and the addition of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, both of which prohibit unauthorized releases of hazardous substances and petroleum products into the environment, EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard have exercised extensive environmental enforcement authority, making arrests, shutting down facilities, and imposing civil and criminal penalties for violations of environmental regulations. High-profile cases such as the 1998 $8 million settlement against W. R. Grace for polluting drinking water wells in Woburn, Massachusetts, and ExxonMobil’s payment of $900 million in punitive damages for their involvement in the 1989 tanker disaster in Valdez, Alaska, demonstrate that the environmental enforcement community takes its mission seriously.

Although less media attention is paid to the quiet victories of wildlife inspectors, special agents, park rangers, and other environmental enforcement specialists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Department of Agriculture, their work is equally demanding and the breadth of laws available in their regulatory arsenal just as powerful. Often combined with extensive undercover operations, federal statutes such as the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act frequently yield large criminal penalties for those trafficking in wildlife parts both within the United States and abroad. Similarly, park rangers monitor large tracts of public land via truck, horse, and foot patrol and through aircraft and electronic surveillance to enforce the Federal Land and Management Policy Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. These guardians of U.S. natural, cultural, and historic resources ensure that hazardous substances are not unlawfully disposed of in critical wildlife habitat, marijuana is not being cultivated on federal property, and artifacts are not removed from battlefields and Native American burial grounds.

Environmental Justice

The financial motivations for corporations and individuals who pollute, poach, or traffic in animal parts are clear. Moreover, the corresponding enforcement strategy on the part of the U.S. government to protect human health and the environment is also readily apparent. What is far more elusive is the concept of environmental justice, that is, ensuring that those persons in the lowest socioeconomic stratum of society are afforded the same health, safety, and environmental protections under the law as are society’s wealthiest members. Much of this concern dates back to the mid-1960s, when workers in a variety of industrial settings such as shipyards, chemical manufacturing plants, and the textile industry began to experience illnesses based on years of exposure to asbestos, solvents, and heavy metals. Lawsuits gave way to legislation such as the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, which guarantees all workers a right to a workplace reasonably free from industrial hazards. Yet, more than 30 years later, employees in many of these high-risk settings still face challenges such as receiving basic respiratory protection gear and chemically resistant gloves and goggles, obtaining training on how to properly use these items, and participating in medical monitoring programs to track their long-term health.

Legislation such as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1980 and the Federal Facilities Compliance Act of 1992 granted leaders in the most economically disenfranchised areas empirical evidence to support what they had long suspected: Many chemical manufacturing plants, hazardous waste storage areas, and energy production facilities are located in or adjacent to those locations with the highest rates of minorities and lowest socioeconomic status. Community activists responded by amending their rallying cry pertaining to the siting of such industrial facilities from “Not in my backyard” to “Not in anyone’s backyard.”

The term environmental crime is complex, and it evokes images ranging from the midnight dumping of 55-gallon drums in a local stream behind an elementary school to the wholesale slaughter of threatened and endangered species for sale on the black market. Whatever one’s perspective is on this issue, only through the examination of the nexus between financial motivations, regulatory enforcement, and equal protection for all of society’s members can this important social problem be explored with the richness it so rightly deserves.


  1. Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Fawcett.
  2. Clifford, Mary. 1998. Environmental Crime: Enforcement, Policy, and Social Responsibility. Frederick, MD: Aspen.
  3. Gore, Albert. 2000. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  4. Swendsen, David. 1987. Badge in the Wilderness: My 30 Years Combatting Wildlife Violators. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole.

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