We help client avoid charges for alleged violations of federal environmental laws

Violating federal environmental laws can result in serious criminal penalties. Here’s how we helped our client avoid being charged.

Last week, our firm successfully resolved a criminal investigation initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency focusing one of our corporate clients – an energy corporation engaged in selling used oil. After three years of representing the client in responding to subpoenas and negotiating with the prosecutor, the government agreed not to pursue charges for alleged violations of federal environmental laws and dismiss the case.

Our client hired us in April 2015 after receiving a “target letter” notifying the owner of the business that Florida and federal authorities were investigating his company for violating federal environmental laws by submitting false documentation to the EPA and violating regulations governing the sale of used oil.

The EPA was investigating our client for suspected violations of Title 40, Part 279 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which governs the proper procedures and standards for transporting and distributing used oil. Our client was accused of submitting false documentation in connection with his company’s used oil sales.

While there were some misleading statements included in the documentation, we didn’t think a crime had been committed. But the federal prosecutors involved in the case tried to convince the owner of the business to enter a “guilty” plea to a felony offense, he took our advice and refused the government’s offer. We did not believe that there was enough evidence to show criminal wrongdoing given our client’s lack of intent. Realizing that we were not going to accept a felony plea, the government backed off. The case was closed.

Our firm has represented several businesses and individuals investigated for violating federal environmental laws. Though not as common as civil actions, the federal government does criminally prosecute individuals and corporations for suspected violations of environmental law. Since criminal prosecution is generally reserved for the most serious cases, the stakes are much higher for those accused of violations.

What are the most common federal environmental laws that carry criminal penalties?

  • The Clean Water Act (CWA), which sets forth various laws to protect American waterways and wetlands from pollution, makes it a crime to dump waste and other substances into waters that are privately owned or protected by state or federal laws. Violators include oil companies that discharge oil residue into the ocean, entities that dump sewage waste in waterways, and industrial plants that dump hazardous waste or debris into rivers and other bodies of water.
  • The Clean Air Act (CAA), which provides a framework of laws regulating air quality and sets limits and standards on individuals and organizations that produce emissions. Common violations of the CAA include falsifying documents relating to asbestos removal and tampering with emissions equipment to conceal or falsify emissions reports.
  • The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which regulates the introduction of new chemicals into the commercial market and regulates particularly toxic chemicals already in the market. Some examples of criminal violations include manufacturing or importing chemicals prohibited by TSCA or falsifying documentation to the EPA regarding use and importation of such chemicals.
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates the disposal of solid and hazardous waste material. The RCRA requires permits for facilities that treat, store, and dispose of waste. Criminal violations under RCRA include disposing of hazardous waste without permits, transporting hazardous waste without proper documentation, and making false statements when applying for a permit.
  • The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which regulates the sale and use of pesticides in the United States. Examples of violations include selling illegal pesticides or failing to provide proper warnings or safety measures for employees using pesticides.

In addition to violations of these specific environmental regulations, it’s important to remember that other criminal laws apply in the environmental context. For example, making a false statement or submitting false documentation to the EPA is an independent federal crime, as would be obstructing a civil or criminal investigation by the EPA.

Hiring an attorney early in the investigation of an alleged environmental crime can make a huge difference in the outcome of the case.

It is critically important to retain counsel if you are ever on the receiving end of a target letter or subpoena sent by the federal government. Hiring an experienced federal criminal defense attorney early in the case allows the lawyer to review the relevant documents, interview key witnesses, plot an effective defense strategy, and engage the prosecutors and agents in discussions before a decision about criminal charges has been made.

If you have received a target letter from an agency of federal government, or if you have reason to believe you may be under investigation, you need to act quickly. A federal criminal defense attorney experienced in dealing with the federal environmental crime investigations can be a major asset in resolving your case, and in some cases, may be able to help you avoid criminal prosecution completely.