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Voluntary Disclosure of Environmental Violations: Is Mea Culpa a Good Idea or a Bad Move?

June 2002

Citation: ELR 10692

Author: Channing J. Martin

You are in your office one afternoon when the phone rings. It's the vice president of environmental affairs for one of your clients. He tells you the company just discovered a major violation of an environmental law. The good news is that it has been corrected. "Do we have to report it?," he asks. Your quick review of the law and regulations shows there is no requirement to report. "O.K.," he says, "but should we report it anyway?"

Welcome to The Twilight Zone of environmental law, a dimension where there are no easy answers. Deciding whether to report when there is no obligation to do so is not just a legal decision; it also involves considerations of corporate philosophy and ethics. Some clients may decide to report all major violations regardless of a legal requirement to do so. In that situation, your job is relatively straightforward: find the best way to disclose the violation with the least onerous consequences. The question is no longer whether to report, but how to do it.

The author is a partner in the Richmond, Virginia, office of Williams Mullen, where he is chair of the firm's environmental law group. His practice focuses on civil and criminal enforcement of environmental laws with an emphasis on hazardous substances and solid and hazardous waste. He received his J.D. degree from the Washington and Lee University School of Law in 1979.

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