Let’s put more effort into investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes

How do we protect communities — especially long-neglected communities
of color — from environmental harms caused by corporate polluters, lax
oversight, and poor enforcement of existing laws?

This country desperately needs new eco-detectives — trained employees
and citizens who can identify and uncover pollution, poaching and other
eco-threats that harm people, wildlife and the planet.

Like most nations the United States has never taken these types of
crimes and assaults seriously. This was especially true during the Trump
administration, which saw enforcement of environmental regulations fall
to an all-time low. But that neglect built upon a systemic flaw, which
sees the perpetrators of environmental crimes receiving punishments that
amount to little more than a slap on the wrist — if they’re prosecuted
at all.

It’s time to fix that, not just for the past administration’s four years of malfeasance but to correct a history of injustice.

Let’s start with the Environmental Protection Agency, which needs
more investigators to detect and stop corporations from poisoning our
air, water and bodies. Under Trump the EPA shed thousands of staff
members and dramatically reduced its enforcement of existing laws. Those
people need to be back on the beat. President Biden’s 2023 budget
proposal aims to create the equivalent of more than 1,900 new full-time positions. That’s a start, but it barely makes up
for the 1,500 jobs the EPA shed during the first year and a half of the
previous administration. Let’s double that number of new hires.

But why stop there? We also need more investigators at the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and
other agencies to protect our wildlife and endangered species — our
natural, cultural heritage — from poachers, corporate development and
climate change. The Fish and Wildlife Service only has about 250 special agents probing wildlife crimes, many of which require multiyear investigations, while the BLM has just 70 people dedicated to criminal investigations. That’s hardly enough to serve a country our size.

Similarly, we need more inspectors at our chronically understaffed ports
and borders to detect illegal wildlife trafficking and protect
endangered species from exploitation and the rest of us from introduced
diseases and invasive species. To accomplish this, the Border Patrol’s history of racism and brutality
needs to be systematically transitioned into a future of science and
service. And it’s not the only federal law-enforcement branch that needs
reform — I’m looking at you, U.S. Park Police.

Of course, once we discover a crime, we need to do something about
it. That’s why, on top of investigators, we also need more environmental
prosecutors at the Department of Justice, to make sure these types of
crimes are properly punished. That’s especially true now, when the DOJ
is already stretched beyond capacity as it prosecutes the more than 700
individuals arrested during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Again, Biden’s 2023
budget proposes some of this,
with an additional $6.5 million for DOJ’s Environment and Natural
Resources Division, but that’s a long way from becoming official. The
EPA and DOJ also announced several initiatives to address environmental justice on May 5, so hopefully that will kickstart some effort and action.

Meanwhile, it’s not just about the federal government. States also
need more environmental crime-busters to address local crimes that
federal laws don’t cover. If someone sells an endangered animal,
pollutes a river, or chops down a forest but doesn’t cross state lines
to do it, they still need to be found and punished.

All of this is essential, but we can go even further. In addition to
addressing environmental crimes through the legal system, we need more
environmental journalists, especially in underserved communities. We
need these watchdogs to serve as eco-detectives more than ever — the
United States has lost more than 2,000 local newspapers
since 2004, turning many towns and communities into “news deserts.”
Life in a participatory democracy depends on a vibrant free press, and
studies have shown that as newspapers die the amount of local fraud and abuse soars — like in coal country, for example.

We also need more scientists working at every public-health agency to
better understand the crimes being perpetrated against the planet and
its denizens. They can help find crimes — for example, by using
satellites to detect unreported emissions — or push the legislatures to
regulate threats we’re just uncovering, like the health risks from PFAS chemicals.
Those researchers need to come from and live in every community, which
means we need more commitment from academia to integrate the ivory
tower, even as we all must commit to fighting systemic racial injustice
wherever we see it.

And that gets us back to those affected by environmental crimes the
most: the people. Since most environmental crime takes place in our
communities, we need to train people as citizen scientists so they can
look for signs of harm themselves. Volunteer efforts like this have a
long and important history of detecting pollution, declining wildlife
populations and other crimes or damage.

This also requires more citizen whistleblowers and activists, not to
mention more laws to protect them when they tell the stories that
wouldn’t be told without their eyes and ears. In recent years states
around the country have passed a rapid succession of anti-protest laws
related to fossil fuel projects, along with ag-gag laws to shroud
factory farms in secrecy and other regulations designed to minimize
public participation and knowledge. Those need to go, so that citizens
themselves can study, monitor, publicize and stand up to the threats
affecting their own lives.

And importantly, all these people — the detectives, prosecutors,
scientists and whistleblowers — need to be listened to by those in
power. Folks have been speaking up in “Cancer Alley” and other
environmental justice communities for decades with no changes to public
health regulations: Much of the environmental harm perpetrated against
these communities is currently legal. That means we need yet one more
level of new environmental crime-buster: politicians who will listen,
act, and finally pass the tougher laws people have demanded for far too
long.

Of course, nothing I’m proposing here serves to erase the sins of the
past. But adding more eco-detectives to address environmental crimes at
every level of society would improve our present and put us all on the
path toward a brighter future. Without them we’ll remain locked in a
polluted prison of our own making.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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