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Environmental Crime: The Prosecution Gap

The Crime Report’s new environmental crime database allows citizens to monitor corporate polluters. It also reveals the government’s weakening efforts to crack down on them.

New York, NY, July 14, 2014Who are the worst corporate polluters in your state? And what’s the government doing about them?

An environmental crime database compiled by The Crime Report, with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism, allows citizens to find out which companies have violated environmental laws in their communities; how much — if anything — they’ve been fined; and how long those companies have been operating in violation. TCR is a nonprofit online news partnership operated by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and Criminal Justice Journalists.

The unique searchable database is the result of an eight-month project led by TCR Deputy Managing Editor Graham Kates, who used public records to uncover more than 64,000 facilities listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as being in violation of federal environmental laws.

What Kates found in the course of his investigation, however, was disturbing.

“Some of the nation’s largest corporate polluters are regularly avoiding criminal prosecution because the feds have insufficient staff and resources to go after them,” he writes.

“In most years, less than one-half of one percent of violations trigger criminal investigations.”

Although every violation can technically be treated as a crime, the vast majority of violators get away with civil settlements, said Kates, who interviewed current and former EPA officials, environmental law experts, advocates and those affected by environmental malfeasance to draw a portrait of a dysfunctional system that has allowed the vast majority of corporate environmental lawbreakers to escape prosecution.

The EPA confirmed to Kates that the number of criminal investigations has been steadily decreasing every year. “The reality of budget cuts and staffing reductions makes hard choices necessary,” an EPA spokesperson conceded.

That has meant even corporations with long histories of environmental misconduct can often evade criminal investigation. After a deadly explosion at a refinery owned by repeat violator CVR Energy Corporation — a company controlled by billionaire investor Carl Icahn — the EPA fined the company $86,000 without conducting a criminal investigation.

The Crime Report’s environmental crime database project offers citizens a tool to monitor and assess government efforts to curb polluters in their towns and communities. It is available online at www.thecrimereport.org.

“Maybe greater citizen engagement will create the momentum to increase the resources the EPA needs to do its job properly,” said Kates.

Graham Kates can be reached at: graham@thecrimereport.org and (212) 484-1356.


GRAHAM KATES bio

Graham Kates, Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report, oversees daily operations of the site and TCR's daily and weekly newsletters, and also serves as a senior staff reporter. His areas of interest in criminal justice include urban issues, official corruption and the penal system. In addition to The Crime Report, Graham’s work has appeared on Salon.com, The Nation online, Yahoo! Sports, The Riverdale Press, Serious Eats, amNY, Zagat, Fodor's and other publications. He studied political science and English as an undergrad at the State University of New York at Binghamton and holds a master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He was a finalist in the 2014 Deadline Club Awards in the independent digital media category for his July 18, 2013 TCR story, written with Lisa Riordan Seville, “A Home of Their Own: An Investigation of New York’s ‘Sober Home’ System”

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice: An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu.