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Environmental Prosecutions Drop to Lowest Rate in 20 Years

Nov. 4, 2019, 9:12 PM

The Trump administration is chasing down fewer environmental crimes than any administration since the mid-1990s, according to new data from an independent research group.

During fiscal 2019, the Justice Department reported 302 new environmental prosecution cases, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse said in a recent report on environmental crime prosecution.

That contrasts with the 850 cases the Justice Department filed in fiscal 1999, 491 in 2009, and 335 in 2014.

Examples of DOJ prosecutions in 2019 included illegally taking fish and wildlife, violating endangered species and migratory bird laws, smuggling goods, illegal hunting, and fraud, TRAC said.

Almost all were misdemeanors or petty offenses, and those convicted usually received a small fine, according to the Oct. 29 report, and prison sentences were rare.

The Trump administration has said it may be doing fewer cases, but they’re more significant.

‘More Complex Investigations’

“We have devoted substantial resources to larger, more complex investigations with more benefit to the environment and public health,” said Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs. “Such cases have resulted in billions of dollars in criminal penalties.”

Over the years, environmental crimes have evolved “from one-off pollution or poaching crimes into more sophisticated criminal conspiracies in such areas as international wildlife trafficking, seafood mislabeling, federal program and consumer fraud, or interstate dog-fighting,” Hornbuckle said.

David Buente, a Sidley Austin LLP attorney and former Justice Department enforcement official from 1979 to 1990, agreed that the statistics reflect an increased focus on complex cases. To illustrate, he pointed to the Obama and Trump administrations’ investigations of Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler for allegedly cheating emissions tests.

Opposing Argument

Patrice Simms, vice president of litigation at environmental group Earthjustice, rejected that argument, saying many important and potentially harmful intentional violations that are worthy of criminal sanction aren’t being prosecuted.

“It’s like saying we’re only going to prosecute murder cases. We’re going to prosecute no other crimes,” said Simms, who served as assistant attorney general in DOJ’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division under President Barack Obama. “It’s a proposition that’s just not acceptable.”

The number of prosecutions have been falling over time. The 335 cases in 2014 were about 10% more than the most recent number under President Donald Trump.

Samantha Dravis, a senior vice president at Clout Public Affairs who served as the Environmental Protection Agency associate administrator for policy under Trump, said smart policy can’t be driven by a simple tabulation of numbers.

She said the EPA under Trump “has taken its enforcement responsibilities seriously, but each case should be reviewed on the merits, not as part of an effort to achieve a greater number of criminal prosecutions than the past.”

Baker Botts LLP attorney Steve Solow, who led the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section from 1997 to 2000, pointed to other factors that could have contributed to the decline, including a reduction in EPA investigators over the years and a shift in focus from anti-pollution cases to wildlife crimes.

TRAC’s numbers were pulled from Freedom of Information Act requests, said David Burnham, the group’s co-founder and co-director.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at; Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Renee Schoof at; Anna Yukhananov at