State joins with EPA to create environmental crimes task force

The state of New Mexico and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have launched a new task force to investigate and prosecute environmental crimes in the state. These can range from dumping oil and hazardous waste to falsifying records. Laura Paskus with our media partner New Mexico PBS talked with New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney and Kim Bahney, special agent in charge with EPA’s criminal investigation division about why this taskforce is necessary.

JAMES KENNEY: The Environmental Crimes Task Force fills a big void in the state of New Mexico. Historically, most state environmental agencies work with federal partners to prosecute civil and criminal violations, those that maybe are unintentional and those that are intentional. With the lack of having a taskforce here for so many years, we have no barometer as to whether there are criminal activities occurring that would be hurting the environment or hurting public health, operating outside of the regulatory scheme. The task force will fill that void and share intelligence and then move towards prosecuting those individuals or corporations that are criminally violating environmental laws.

LAURA PASKUS: So can you describe for me what’s the difference between a civil versus a criminal violation? Is this just like a crime versus an accident?

KENNEY: When a company or person inadvertently violates the law, they may have the best intention, but they don’t execute it properly. That is often a civil violation. Maybe they forgot to submit a piece of paper that is important to the environment department ensuring compliance. In a criminal violation, usually there’s intent to circumvent. defraud, avoid and not play by the rules, which is why there’s typically not only penalties, but sometimes jail time involved.

PASKUS: Kim, can you give us some examples of either cases you’ve worked on or incidents you’ve seen in the region that maybe could happen in New Mexico as well?

KIM BAHNEY: Certainly. I think the one thing that most environmental crimes have in common is that there is a deliberate decision, usually to save money or to make money and it’s at the expense of the environment or human health. [For example] release of chemicals or other hazardous pollutants into the air. Perhaps an industry is falsifying their air emission, or it can be anything from illegal importation of refrigerants and pesticides — we’re seeing quite a bit of that — situations where there’s fires or explosions because of mismanagement of chemicals, dumping into waters, either state or federal waters or sewer systems that would ultimately cause harm to our wastewater treatment plants. And then falsification at wastewater treatment plants, drinking water plants.

PASKUS: So environmental enforcement is already a challenge in New Mexico. I’m thinking, for example of how many oil and gas wells there are versus how many inspectors there are. How is this task force going to meet the challenges that could potentially be really big?

KENNEY: There is a bit of a David versus Goliath kind of feel from a regulatory standpoint versus some bad actors, like how do you find those? Part of the reason an environmental crimes task force works so well is because you leverage state and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as tribal agencies, to come together, both on the investigation, building the case, then working with prosecutors to enforce against that entity. So there’s more eyes and ears out there, and more sharing of information. And that does help level the playing field between the regulated community and the regulators.

PASKUS: So if people see something, how do they alert the task force,

BAHNEY: EPA has a tip line. That’s then funneled to our headquarters and goes to the appropriate office. Even if we’re deciding that EPA is more in the lead, we are typically coordinating with New Mexico Environment Department to make sure that they’re not already on it one, and two, they usually have a better understanding of the regulatory history there and what’s happened in the past which always funnels into our case moving forward.

KENNEY: And similar New Mexico Environment Department has a tip line, you can submit it either by phone or by web, in English or Spanish.

Watch the full interview at the New Mexico in Focus YouTube channel.

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