By Aisha Johnson, Education Information Specialist, Roanoke Police Department, Virginia, and Heidi Coy, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Virginia
few years ago, the owner of a trailer park in Bedford, Virginia, was caught allowing the park’s sewage lagoon to discharge sewage into a branch of Sandy Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River connected to Smith Mountain Lake. A federal jury convicted the park owner on April 28, 2005, for violations of the Clean Water Act.1 The man was sentenced to two years and three months in prison and was ordered to pay a $270,000 fine for knowingly discharging fecal coliform bacteria and other pollutants into a tributary of two large bodies of water.
The conviction of this polluter numbers among the many major investigative accomplishments of the Blue Ridge Environmental Task Force. U.S. attorney John L. Brownlee established the task force in 2001. Its mission is to protect the quality of Virginia’s natural resources while striving to facilitate the communication, information sharing, and coordination of enforcement efforts among several federal, state, and local regulatory and law enforcement agencies. The task force also helps municipalities solve environmental problems and develops protocols and strategies to assist local leaders in dealing with environmental hazards. “The effectiveness of the Blue Ridge Environmental Task Force is based on the quality of cooperation among state, local, and federal agencies. By sharing information and resources, we are very successful in stopping those who choose to violate our environmental laws,” said Brownlee.
Cases of environmental abuse in Virginia are investigated by agents, officers, and firefighters from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ); U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Virginia Department of Emergency Management; the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service; the Virginia Department of Forestry; the police departments of Roanoke, Bedford, Salem, and Radford; the Roanoke Fire-EMS Service; and the Salem Fire and EMS Department. These agencies work to identify and investigate suspected violations of environmental laws. “The task force allows us to take a collective approach to resolving regional environmental crime issues. This approach has served to protect the ecosystem throughout southwestern Virginia by prioritizing our investigations,” said Roanoke chief of police A. L. Gaskins. If charges can be brought, the U.S. attorney handles the prosecution, in coordination with local and state prosecutors if necessary. By combining their efforts, the agencies involved in the task force maximize their resources without duplicating their work.
Businesses as well as individuals can be brought to justice for environmental violations. For example, the task force built a case against a metal finishing company in Roanoke that used significant amounts of acids, cleaning agents, and metals in their waste water without pretreating it, as required by the Clean Water Act. The company and its top two executives pleaded guilty in November 2006 to discharging pollutants into Roanoke’s sanitary sewer system without a permit. The company was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and $25,000 restitution. The company president and vice president were sentenced to three years’ probation and ordered to pay fines of $7,500 and $5,000, respectively. Convictions such as these send the message to companies and individuals alike that local police actively monitor and enforce compliance with environmental laws.
The metal finishing investigation, a joint effort of the various agencies who participate in the Blue Ridge Environmental Task Force, could have resulted in the imprisonment of the corporate officers as well as hefty fines. The corporation faced a maximum fine of $5,000 to $50,000 per day of violation or $500,000, whichever was greater. In addition, each defendant involved in this case might have received the maximum penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of $5,000 to $50,000 per day up to $250,000. During the plea agreement U.S. Attorney Brownlee said, “We hope the guilty pleas entered here today send the message that we will aggressively enforce the federal laws that protect our environment.”
No individual or corporation is immune to this aggressive enforcement. Because information regarding environmental abuse can come from many sources, it is difficult for offenders to completely conceal their actions. Investigations can be initiated by DEQ inspections or when hazardous material is spilled into a waterway. Information also comes from citizens or company employees who want to report wrongdoing.
Task force members receive specialized training that allows them to properly investigate and respond to suspected violations of environmental laws. Members receive training that fits their specific roles within the task force. The EPA, the Virginia DEQ, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) often provide training; topics range from collecting samples to entering a “hot zone,” an area where there is a risk of exposure to hazardous materials.2
Courts often order convicted offenders (including corporations) to pay for the cleanup of improperly disposed hazardous materials. In the trailer park case described earlier, the defendant must not only serve a prison sentence and pay a fine, but he is also responsible for the cleanup of the sewage lagoon where the dumping took place.
Corporate restitution can also come through education. Where violations have occurred, some localities have held programs to educate and assist the public in the proper disposal of hazardous materials. Violators have been ordered to donate money to assist with similar programs held by local, state, and federal agencies. Yet other violators have assisted in the development of greenways, which are designed to serve, protect, and enhance ecological habitats.3 Brownlee reminds us of the importance of the task force’s work: “Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, we live in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Through our continued efforts, we hope to preserve the natural beauty of our environment for all to enjoy.”■
1See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Clean Water Act,” July 14, 2006, www.epa.gov/region5/water/cwa.htm, April 14, 2007: “Growing public awareness and concern for controlling water pollution led to enactment of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. As amended in 1977, this law became commonly known as the Clean Water Act.”
2See Steven C. Drielak, “The Collection of Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Evidence in a Global Justice Environment,” The Police Chief 73 (March 2006): 48–53.
3See “Trash Cop Puts a Stop to Illegal Dumping,” in “Proactive Policing: Strategies That Work,” The Police Chief 70 (January 2003): 20.