Posted May 10, 2022 8:54 am
John R Platt
How do we protect communities—particularly long-neglected communities of color—from environmental damage caused by polluters, lax oversight, and poor enforcement of existing laws?
This country desperately needs new environmental detectives – trained employees and citizens who can identify and uncover pollution, poaching and other environmental threats that are harming people, wildlife and the planet.
Like most nations, the United States has never taken these types of crimes and abuses seriously. This was especially true during the Trump administration, when environmental enforcement had fallen to an all-time low. But that neglect built on a systemic flaw that results in perpetrators of environmental crimes receiving sentences that amount to little more than a slap in the hand – if prosecuted at all.
It is time to put this right, not only because of the past administration’s four years of misconduct, but also to right a history of injustice.
Let’s start with the Environmental Protection Agency, which needs more investigators to track down and stop companies from poisoning our air, water and bodies. Under Trump, the EPA laid off thousands of employees and drastically reduced enforcement of existing laws. These people need to get back on track. President Biden’s 2023 budget proposal aims to create the equivalent of more than 1,900 new full-time jobs. That’s a start, but it barely offsets the 1,500 jobs the EPA cut in the first year and a half of the previous administration. Let’s double the number of new hires.
But why stop there? We also need more investigators at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and other agencies to protect our wildlife and endangered species – our natural, cultural heritage – from poachers, corporate development and climate change. The Fish and Wildlife Service has only about 250 special agents investigating wildlife crimes, many of which require multi-year investigations, while the BLM has only 70 people dealing with criminal investigations. That’s hardly enough to feed a country our size.
Likewise, we need more inspectors at our chronically undermanned ports and borders to uncover illegal wildlife trade and protect endangered species from exploitation and the rest of us from introduced diseases and invasive species. To achieve this, the history of racism and border guard brutality must be systematically translated into a future of scholarship and service. And it’s not the only federal law enforcement agency that needs reform — I’m looking at you, US Park Police.
Of course, as soon as we discover a crime, we have to do something about it. So, in addition to investigators, we also need more environmental prosecutors in the Department of Justice to ensure that these types of crimes are properly punished. That’s especially true now that the DOJ is already overwhelmed as it tracks the more than 700 people arrested during the January 6 riot.
Again, Biden’s 2023 budget proposes part of that, with an additional $6.5 million for the Department of Justice’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, but that’s far from official. The EPA and DOJ also announced several initiatives on May 5 to address environmental justice, so hopefully this will spark some effort and action.
It’s not just about the federal government. States also need more environmental crime officers to fight local crimes not covered by federal law. If someone sells an endangered animal, pollutes a river, or cuts down a forest without crossing state lines, they still need to be found and punished.
All of this is important, but we can go further. In addition to the legal system treating environmental crimes, we need more environmental journalists, especially in underserved communities. We need these watchdogs as eco-sleuths more than ever — the United States has lost more than 2,000 local newspapers since 2004 and turned many cities and towns into “news deserts.” Life in a participatory democracy depends on a vibrant free press, and studies have shown that as newspapers die out, so does the amount of local fraud and abuse – such as in coal country.
We also need more scientists working in all health departments to better understand the crimes being committed against the planet and its inhabitants. They can help uncover crime — for example, by using satellites to detect unreported emissions — or push lawmakers to regulate threats we’re uncovering, like the health risks posed by PFAS chemicals. These researchers need to come from and live in all communities, which means we need more commitment from academia to integrate the ivory tower, even as we all need a commitment to fighting systemic racial injustice wherever we see it.
And that brings us back to those most affected by environmental crime: the people. Since most environmental crime occurs in our communities, we need to train people to be citizen scientists so they can look for signs of harm themselves. Volunteering like this has a long and important history in detecting pollution, declining wildlife populations and other crimes or harms.
This also requires more middle-class whistleblowers and activists, not to mention more laws to protect them when they tell stories that would not be told without their eyes and ears. In recent years, states across the country have passed a rapid succession of anti-protest laws related to fossil-fuel projects, along with ag-gag laws to keep factory farms secret and other regulations aimed at preventing the Minimize public participation and knowledge. These must go away so that citizens themselves can study, monitor, publish and defend themselves against the threats affecting their own lives.
Most importantly, all these people – the detectives, prosecutors, scientists and whistleblowers – need to be heard by those in power. People have spoken out in Cancer Alley and other environmental justice communities for decades without changing public health regulations: Much of the environmental damage done to these communities is currently legal. That means we need yet another layer of new environmental criminals: politicians to listen, act, and finally pass the tougher laws that people have been asking for for far too long.
Of course, nothing I propose here is designed to erase the sins of the past. But using more eco-sleuths to tackle environmental crimes at all levels of society would improve our present and set us all on the path to a better future. Without them we remain locked in a polluted prison of our own making.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration strengthening the coverage of climate history.
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