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Environmental and Natural Resource Crimes: The Hidden Threat to Public Safety, Natural Resources and the Environment

By Edmund F. McGarrell, Director and Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, Member, IACP Research Advisory Committee, and IACP Environmental Crimes Committee; and Natalie Kroovand Hipple, Research Specialist and Coordinator of Online Programs, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, and IACP Associate Member

rimes involving the environment and natural resources typically are not on the radar of local police officials. Yet, closer examination reveals that these often hidden crimes also pose serious threats to human health, quality of life, and the economy.

Someone poisoning a family member would draw law enforcement investigatory attention. Yet, when a construction company illegally and improperly removes asbestos from a building renovation, thereby poisoning the workers and putting at risk the general public, this act most likely would not come to the attention of local law enforcement officials. A shoplifting ring stealing goods valued at $200,000 would quickly warrant local law enforcement investigation. Yet, an importer of wildlife parts valued at this amount—or much more, and, thereby directly contributing to the loss of an endangered species—rarely has been the focus of local law enforcement. Environmental and natural resource criminals create direct harm and long-term risks and deserve notice (much like perpetrators of other types of criminal and harmful acts).

This article provides information and context about the nature of these crimes and the role of law enforcement in preventing and responding to them.1 Given the very nature of these crimes and their low level of detection, these cases clearly represent the proverbial tip-of-the-iceberg in terms of the true extent of these cases. Interpol’s Environmental Crime Committee, nongovernmental organizations, and researchers have documented the involvement of transnational criminal organizations in environmental crime due to the lucrative profits and low risks. The same criminal networks that move people, drugs, and guns across borders, increasingly are involved in moving hazardous waste and endangered animal parts across the same borders. Local law enforcement officers are most likely to encounter people involved in these criminal networks. Of the 239 cases reviewed for this article, state or local law enforcement provided assistance in 105 cases (43.9 percent). And, in many of these cases, multiple local agencies assisted with the investigation. Local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies represent crucial “nodes” in the overall enforcement network necessary for prevention and control strategies to minimize harm to humans, the environment, and for enhancing the quality of life.

The Nature of Environmental and Natural Resource Crimes

A large range of offenses, and risks, are encompassed by the terms environmental and natural resource crimes. A common breakdown, utilized by the Environmental Crimes Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police as well as Interpol’s Environmental Crime Committee, is the distinction between pollution crime and wildlife crime. As the name implies, pollution crime involves the discharge of a toxic or potentially harmful substance, beyond legally allowed levels, producing an adverse effect on human health or the environment. Interpol defines wildlife crime as the “illegal exploitation of the world’s wild flora and fauna.”2 If wildlife crime is restricted to fauna (animals), a third category of natural resource crime can be utilized to capture offenses such as illegal logging or the illegal taking of endangered plant species.


Pollution Crimes—Pollution crimes involve a wide variety of illegal acts that violate laws intended to protect the nation’s air and water. These include violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA); Clean Water Act (CWA); and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), as well as similar state and local laws. They can also involve related violations such as false documents and conspiracy associated with acts to hide the underlying pollution crime. A broad range of these offenses exists. Some are characterized by offenses that may have a minimal impact on human health or the environment in a single instance, for example, falsely certifying an individual motor vehicle as meeting exhaust standards, but have large cumulative impacts when thousands of vehicles are falsely certified and thus allowed to pollute the air. Others are more rare events but with high impact, such as the Exxon Valdeez oil spill.

As table 1 reveals, pollution crimes represented the largest category of environmental crimes prosecuted in the federal courts during 2011. Over half the total cases involved pollution crimes with atmospheric and aquatic pollution involving CAA and CWA violations being the most common.

Table 1: Classification of Environmental and Natural Resource Crimes in the Federal Court System, 2011
Offense TypeFrequencyPercent

One significant source of CAA violations with particular impact at the local level relates to contractors and inspectors violating laws governing asbestos and lead removal. Many of these cases involved companies that would supposedly properly handle and dispose of these carcinogenic substances but who would save costs by ignoring the risks and disposing of the substances as if no toxics were involved. For example, a New York City case involved a company known as the SAF Environmental Corporation. The mission of the company was to conduct environmental inspections and testing. The defendant admitted to failing to submit dust samples for appropriate testing required for lead and asbestos abatement and to defrauding building maintenance companies, landlords, and contractors for tests that were never conducted. The company deemed air quality as safe even though no tests were ever conducted.

A similar asbestos case occurred in Ohio. In this instance new ownership decided to renovate a steel plant. A consultant provided a report documenting 30,000 linear feet of asbestos piping. When one section of the plant was renovated, the piping was removed without proper disposal of the asbestos materials. Indeed, employees dropped dry asbestos covered pipes to the ground floor and were told by the owner to hide asbestos throughout the plant prior to inspections. A Florida case involved several individuals involved in buying and rehabilitating apartment complexes. Despite having inspectors repeatedly identify and warn the new owners of significant amounts of asbestos, proper removal and disposal steps were not taken. Both workers and local residents were exposed to significant amounts of asbestos-filled dust through the removal and improper disposal of ceiling tiles and other materials. These cases were observed across the United States.

Other types of CAA violations involved fraudulent testing and reporting. An example of a low-impact single event with a large cumulative impact was a case in Nevada where ten individuals were charged and four convicted of submitting false vehicle emission test results to the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. The defendants used a vehicle known to produce “passing results” to submit results for vehicles that could not pass emission standards. An investigation revealed over 4,000 false submissions of test results.

The role of fraud is often witnessed in CWA violations as well. In one California case, the environmental manager for a bottling company ordered that samples submitted for testing be diluted with clean water to ensure the company appeared to be in compliance with its discharge permit for 150,000 gallons of wastewater annually. In addition to this type of fraud, many CWA violations involve companies avoiding the costs of wastewater treatment through illegal discharge directly into sewers, streams, and rivers. These can include negligent discharges of treated wastewater, as in the case of a dairy farmer in Idaho, to more egregious discharges of toxic chemicals into Publicly Owned Water Treatment (POTW) systems. This type of dumping can cause significant damage and high repair costs to POTW systems. POTW systems are generally owned by public agencies and such costs are passed on to consumers in the form of increased utility costs.

A number of CWA violations, labeled as marine pollution, involved shippers illegally discharging oil waste into waterways. Oftentimes the oil records books were falsified to conceal the discharges. These included cases of commercial fishing and shipping vessels.

Although most of the pollution offenses involved commercial operations, even public officials can be found in violation of pollution laws. In 2011 the mayor and superintendent of public works (and a former chief of police) in Stover, Missouri, were found guilty of falsification of records. The evidence showed that the city was submitting false reports on water quality to the state agency responsible for monitoring drinking water because the officials knew the water was not in compliance.

RCRA violations are often similar to CWA violations and typically involve the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes. An example involved the owner of a chemical transportation company and a worker at a Texas truck-washing company who agreed to illegally dispose of hazardous wastewater from the chemical transportation company as if it came from the truck-washing operation. A number of RCRA cases involved knowingly dumping hazardous wastes in local landfills. For example, a case involved the owner of a pawn shop who dumped containers of potassium cyanide and concentrated nitric acid, materials that when combined produce deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, in the local landfill. Another case involved 150 barrels of hazardous waste abandoned in a storage facility.

Wildlife Crimes—The second largest classification of cases, comprising 40 percent of all the cases, was wildlife crimes. These typically involved violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the Lacey Act. The ESA was passed in 1973 to protect critically endangered species from extinction. Violations of the ESA that rise to the level of a criminal offense often include trafficking or knowingly taking a species listed as endangered. The CITES is an international agreement among governments that seeks to ensure international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The Lacey Act, the oldest of these statutes, was passed in 1900 and prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. Thus, possession of a species protected under CITES could be a federal crime in the United States under the Lacey Act. Many of these violations involve transnational crimes such as transporting endangered species into the United States.

Elephant and Rhino poaching represent crimes occurring outside the United States but that may also involve offenses within the United States due to trafficking in ivory. Since 1975 when CITES banned the international trade in elephant ivory, it has been an offense to transport ivory into the U.S.3 An example of such a violation occurred in New York City where six defendants were convicted of Lacey Act violations for importing ivory through JFK Airport—disguising the ivory as African handicrafts and wooden instruments.

Several examples of violations of the ESA and Lacey Act and of the transnational dimensions of many of these offenses, involved the importation of sperm whale teeth and Narwhal (a whale species) tusks. Sperm whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and Narwhals are listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Both products are valued by artists and collectors but are prohibited under CITES in order to reduce the illegal poaching of sperm whales and Narwhals. Both cases involved U.S. importers and Ukrainian suppliers. One of the convicted offenders was an antiques dealer in Massachusetts. The investigation revealed that the illegally imported teeth and tusks had a market value of between $200,000 and $400,000. A very similar case occurred in California in 2011. This case involved an importer who purchased sperm whale teeth from the Ukraine and then resold the teeth to scrimshaw artists for engraving or carving of ivory figures. The investigation revealed that the importer had received over 600 teeth valued at over $200,000.

Some of the international cases involve the importation of animals or plants without an appropriate permit. These cases often raise broader concerns about the introduction of disease and invasive species into the United States. For example, in 2010 customs officials in the Miami airport arrested a woman smuggling 72 pigeon eggs from Cuba. The investigation revealed that the goal was to hatch the eggs and sell the pigeons in a pet store for individuals involved in homing or racing pigeons. The concern is that there are quarantines on such importations because of the risk of spreading communicable diseases to domestic poultry stocks and wild birds.

ESA violations can also involve domestic offenses such as the harvesting of endangered green sea turtle eggs in Florida and the purchasing of North American world turtles from Pennsylvania by an online reptile dealer in New Jersey. Some of these domestic cases also involve the export of domestic goods. One example in Ohio involved two defendants and two caviar companies that they owned. Paddlefish eggs are marketed as caviar but cannot be harvested in Ohio. They are also protected under federal law. They can, however, be harvested in Kentucky. The defendants illegally harvested and paid fisherman to illegally harvest paddlefish in Ohio and then submitted paperwork that the fish were harvested in Kentucky in order to export the eggs to foreign customers.

Additional wildlife crimes involve the violation of state and federal statutes and regulations involving fish and wildlife laws. A number of the cases reaching federal prosecution level involved commercial guiding and hunting operations that provide hunts in violation of the law. In the limited sample of cases reviewed examples of such operations occurred in Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Texas.

Nature of the Harm

These crimes include examples of actual harm to human health, the environment, and natural resources as well as generating risks for harm. These harms and risks were recorded.4 As table 2 indicates, the most frequent harm mentioned was to the environment and natural resources (e.g., toxins released into the air or a waterway). This was followed by harm to human health (e.g., exposure to a toxin causing a health problem) and to wildlife generally and endangered species particularly. Interestingly, the most common risks (versus harms) were to human health. An example includes air and water pollution.

Table 2: Harm or Risk Associated with the Environmental and Natural Resource Crimes in the Federal Court System, 2011
Harm or RiskFirst MentionPercentSecond MentionPercent
Harm to environment and natural resources8033.5218.8
Harm to human health3213.410.4
Harm to wildlife2610.910.4
Harm to fisheries104.210.4
Harm to wetlands20.800
Harm to regulated or protected and threatened species83.300
Harm to endangered species208.400
Risk to environment and natural resources31.372.9
Risk to human health2912.1229.2
Risk to wildlife10.410.4
Risk to fisheries52.120.8
Risk to wetlands0000
Risk to regulated or protected and threatened species31.320
Risk to endangered species208.410.4

In some instances there is evidence of harm as well as future risks. For example, some of the asbestos cases included evidence of harm to workers who were handling the asbestos without proper protection—as well risks to others who were likely to be exposed due to improper disposal. Similarly, with some of the wildlife cases there was direct harm to the wildlife species, for example, through harvest of pigeon eggs, but also a risk to agriculture and wildlife because the import of an unregulated exotic species creates a risk for the introduction of disease and possible extinction of native species.

In addition to these harms and risks, many of these cases involved harm through corruption, the loss of public trust, and harm to commerce and the economy. Specifically, a number of the cases involved public corruption or corruption associated with regulation and enforcement of laws intended to promote public health and to protect the environment and natural resources. Several of the water testing and water discharge cases involved corruption by public waste treatment and municipal officials. A similar case involving fraudulent lead hazard residential assessments and mail fraud resulted in the conviction of the city of Detroit’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. A significant fisheries case involved a commercial fisher who also served as a fisheries advisor to one of the state’s U.S. senators and who served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Also striking are the large number of cases that involve fraud and other forms of criminal behavior in addition to the environmental offenses. One of the more intricate examples stemmed from a Massachusetts case against the owner of Environmental Compliance Training School (ECTS). This school was supposed to provide training and certification in asbestos abatement. The school sold hundreds of certificates to undocumented workers that had not received training. The owner of ECTS also owned a temporary staffing company that would then contract out the workers to construction asbestos removal sites throughout the New England region. In addition to putting these workers at risk—and the public who was exposed to asbestos that was improperly removed and disposed of—the owner was convicted of tax violations related to fraudulent payroll reporting to the Internal Revenue Service.

Finally, these crimes also create harm to the public good through their impact on commerce. Essentially, they create an unequal playing field for the free market. These cases often involve unscrupulous businesses that attempt to reduce costs through violation of environmental laws and regulations. Thus, an honest contractor demolishing or renovating buildings with lead paint or asbestos incurs significant expenses for the proper handling and disposal of such materials and is put at a competitive disadvantage with contractors who avoid these costs through improper and illegal disposal. Similarly, businesses complying with CAA and CWA regulations incur expenses that violating competitors avoid. Absent effective enforcement, criminal businesses gain a competitive advantage while at the same time harming human health, wildlife, and the environment.

The Role of Law Enforcement

The sample of cases in this study were from U.S. federal courts, and the most common enforcement agencies involved were federal agencies with responsibility for the enforcement of environmental and natural resource laws. These included the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—by far the most commonly involved agencies. The next most frequently involved agencies were the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard. A number of other federal and state agencies, as well as regional environmental crime task forces, were mentioned in a number of cases. Indeed, state agency involvement was noted in over 100 of the cases.

Local law enforcement agencies were mentioned only in a few of the cases. This may reflect the study’s focus on federally prosecuted cases as well as the limited information on the cases. For example, if a local agency provided a tip or lead to a state or federal agency it may not have been captured in the case summary. It may also, however, reflect a lack of awareness or attention to environmental and natural resource crimes on the part of local law enforcement.

A number of reasons exist to believe that local law enforcement play a significant role in environmental and natural resource crime enforcement. First, as the cases previously described reveal, there is significant harm and risk of harm to local citizens. Second, as retired Deputy Chief Scott Swanson from the Santa Rosa, California, Police Department has stated in training programs for local law enforcement, “because they are crimes.” That is, law enforcement officers are sworn to uphold the criminal laws, including those involving environmental and natural resource crimes. Third, these offenses also create harm and risk of harm to law enforcement officers. This is probably familiar to many law enforcement leaders in the case of environmental offenses related to illegal methamphetamine labs. However, it is also evident in situations where officers may respond to settings where toxic substances or exotic animal or plant species may be present. Fourth, local law enforcement officers are much more likely to encounter environmental offenses in their routine patrols.

The often hidden nature of these offenses—coupled with the limited enforcement resources among state and federal agencies responsible for environmental and natural resource enforcement—creates a public need for greater awareness among local law enforcement agencies. For example, the 2004 Census of Federal Law Enforcement revealed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Division had slightly more than 700 full-time officers and the Criminal Investigation Division of EPA had slightly more than 200 agents. These agencies cover the entire United States and have international responsibilities. Thus, the importance of the nation’s approximately 700,000 officers at city and county levels to identify environmental and natural resource crimes is apparent.

Finally, although enforcement is an essential component of environmental and natural resource crimes, education also should be considered a crucial component. Crime prevention education is a common role for law enforcement agencies everywhere and the inclusion of these types of crimes and their impacts on human health and the fragile environment should not be overlooked.5


Environmental and natural resource crimes harm individuals, the environment, and wildlife and create ongoing risks to people and their environment. They often involve fraud, transnational criminal networks, and public corruption. They also create competitive risks for honest businesses and their employees. They are often hidden, and the harm they generate may not be known or may not manifest for generations. Many may present risks for officer safety. Because resource constraints exist on the state and federal agencies whose primary mission is to enforce these laws, local, county, state, and tribal agencies hold great potential for more effective enforcement—consequently, ensuring greater compliance with environmental and natural resource laws. Greater awareness of the nature of these offenses is needed; whereby, local law enforcement can serve as an important intersection in the greater network of environmental and natural resource law enforcement and represents a tremendous and largely untapped resource for the protection of citizens, communities, and the environment. ♦


1The data and cases presented come from a review of cases prosecuted by U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the United States. Specifically, researchers compiled data from 239 cases that reached the stage of indictment, plea agreement, conviction by trial, or sentencing in a federal court during 2011. As such, they represent cases that reached a level of seriousness that prioritized them for prosecution despite limited federal prosecutorial resources to take on such cases.
2“Environmental Crime,” Interpol, (accessed July 3, 2013).
3Worked African elephant ivory acquired before its 1978 Endangered Species Act listing or antique ivory (over 100 years old) may be imported or exported for noncommercial purposes or, in limited situations, for commercial purposes with a certification from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “U.S. Efforts to Control Illegal Elephant Ivory Trade and Internal Markets,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (January, 2008), September 24, 2012).
4Specifically, the authors recorded the first two mentions of a harm or risk generated by the crime from the case summaries.
5An excellent example of this outreach approach is the Junior Environmental Watch Dog program developed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Office of Criminal Investigation, and delivered to children in grades K-6.

Please cite as:

Edmund F. McGarrell and Natalie Kroovand Hipple, "Environmental and Natural Resource Crimes: The Hidden Threat to Public Safety, Natural Resources and the Environment," The Police Chief 80 (August 2013): 110–113.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 8, August 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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