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Evolution of Criminal Environmental Enforcement

May 2009

Citation: ELR 10352

Author: Edward Bonanno

Since federal and state governments first began prosecuting environmental crimes more than 25 years ago, the nature of the cases they have investigated and prosecuted has changed dramatically. In the early years of criminal enforcement, prosecutors used then-recently enacted criminal statutes to deal with blatant criminal conduct, such as midnight dumping of toxic waste drums. Over the past 25 years, the states and the U.S. Congress have enacted tougher, more comprehensive environmental crimes statutes and devoted greater resources to fighting environmental crime. Those efforts, coupled with civil enforcement efforts and the general industry acceptance thereof, and compliance with the comprehensive environmental regulatory strictures put in place have, to a very large degree, eliminated most of the blatant dumping activity that was so pervasive in many areas in the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Now, those who want to avoid complying with the law, either out of greed or sheer laziness, often employ more sophisticated or discreet methods. Some falsify documents to conceal their failure to comply with the requirements of our environmental laws, while others store hazardous/toxic materials in ways that endanger workers and the surrounding community. Moreover, as the demands on our land and water resources increase, more companies and individuals are taking actions that violate statutory and regulatory requirements for land use and for safe drinking water. With greater development and redevelopment pressures, there is also more incentive for contractors, consultants, and truckers to improperly handle the removal and disposal of debris, both nonhazardous and contaminated, from old commercial sites. This Article examines those types of conduct that are now, and will be, of greatest concern to state and federal environmental prosecutors. It will also examine some significant legislative developments in New Jersey that reflect the evolution of criminal environmental enforcement and ways that criminal enforcement can creatively use resources to combat environmental crimes.

Edward Bonanno is currently a Supervising Deputy Attorney General in the New Jersey Attorney General's Office, Division of Criminal Justice, where he has prosecuted environmental crimes and other types of white-collar crimes for the past 24 years.

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