Environmental Crime Defense Attorneys

A federal environmental crime is one where a person or entity has committed an act that endangers the environment and/or the wildlife living in it. There are several types of environmental crimes, which are then divided up into two categories:

  • Pollution crimes. Pollution crimes generally involve purposely or accidentally leaving substances in an environment that damage it and the creatures that exist in it.
  • Wildlife crimes.  Wildlife crimes involve causing death or injury to wildlife or damaging their environment. I will focus on just a few of these different statutes.

The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act  (also known as the Ocean Dumping Act)

The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, 16 USC § 1431 et seq. and 33 USC §1401 et seq. (1988), prohibits the transport or intentional dumping of hazardous materials from the U.S., by U.S. based vessels, or into U.S. waters without a permit. Violations of this statute are a felony and they often constitute heavy fines and some jail time.  

Elements the Government Must Prove

An important element of this crime is the intent.  In order for the government to prove a defendant violated this statute, they would first be required to prove that the act was intentional.  Next, the government would have to prove that some type of harm was brought to either animals or their environment.  If you were indicted for dumping, the government would have to prove that what you dumped was hazardous.


A defense to these accusations would include having a permit, or that the area the substance was dumped was inside the designated dumping site.  However, if you did not have a permit, or did not dump in a designated area, you would be subject to fines and possible jail time.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

  The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. §6901 et seq. (1976), prohibits the dumping and releasing of hazardous waste.  This statute covers all aspects of hazardous waste from its creation to disposal. More often than not, the dumping and the releasing of hazardous waste is done on the water.

What is “Hazardous Waste?”

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act provides a list of hazardous waste materials that, if dumped illegally, would result in a violation of the statute.  Hazardous waste may also include any mixture of hazardous substances that still retains any of the original substances hazardous qualities. Illegal dumping of these substances is a federal crime and is also punishable by fines and imprisonment.


Improper disposal of substances, such as benzene, can result in everything from general illness to death, depending on the amount of exposure.  A chemical such as benzene is dangerous for both animals and people and should always be properly disposed of. If you were found to be knowingly dumping a chemical such as benzene, you would face stiff penalties, such as in the case of the Houston based company At Wright Containers, whose managers are facing 10 years in prison and upwards of $250,000 in fines.  Prosecutors would have to prove, however, that it was you dumping and that what you were dumping was hazardous.

The Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §1531 et seq. (1973), protects animal species in danger of extinction and their environments. Trafficking illegally in endangered species is one of the many types of activities prohibited by this statute. The United States works in conjunction with many other countries to stop illegal trafficking in endangered and threatened species.

Under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to capture a wild animal with the intent to keep it as a pet.  Wild animals also cannot be captured with the intent to sell them. That means that in order to be found guilty of violating this statute, the government would have to prove that you have or have had these animals, have the intent to sell them, or have sold them in the past.

The Lacey Act

The Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§3371-3378, also bans trafficking in illegal wildlife.  The Act is significant because it protects both plant and wildlife from illegal trade, including the illegal taking, possessing, transporting, or selling of wildlife, fish, and plants.  The Act was amended in 2008 to include plants and plant products. This was a critical piece of legislation since it was the world’s first ban on trade in illegally sourced wood products.  

Endangered Species Permits

Permits to house endangered species are given to those who have the ability to meet the federal standards.  The people that are most often granted permits to house endangered species are animal rescue sanctuaries and veterinarians.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Permits are also given to people and organizations on a case by case basis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  A lot of the time, these permits are granted to organizations whose objective is the continued survival of a certain species.

Fishing and Hunting Permits

Fishing and hunting permits fall under state jurisdiction, not federal.  This means that most violations are investigated and prosecuted by state agencies.  Each state offers the ability for an individual or company to obtain licenses through their individual Department of Natural Resources. Fishing and hunting violations originate when people participate in one of these activities, directly or indirectly, without first obtaining the appropriate permit.

Other violations associated with these regulations include:

  • Where you can hunt,
  • When you can hunt, and
  • What can be hunted.

Penalties for Violating

Violations of these laws are typically at the state level (unless the cases involves endangered species.)   Typically, violations may result in a fine, imprisonment, revocation of all permits, or all of the above.

Elements the Government Must Prove

To show you were in violation of this law, the government would have to prove that you were hunting an animal without a permit, that you were hunting an animal out of season or that you were hunting with a prohibited weapon during the season. For example, during bow season you can’t use a gun to hunt, even with a hunting permit. This one can be difficult, however, as they would have to find evidence of the violation or catch you in the act.

The Clean Water Act

  The Clean Air Act, 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. (1972) makes it illegal to pollute waters of the United States.  According to the statute, you cannot dump wastewater or other pollutants into rivers, lakes, or the ocean at levels considered by the EPA to be beyond the allowed limits. It also prohibits the dumping of hazardous materials into public sewer systems.

This act also allows the EPA to be able to test for pollutants and water contamination.  The objective of these tests is to use the data to establish programs to correct the issue or to gather information as evidence of wrongdoing.


COO of XS Platinum Mines was convicted of allowing pollutants to be dumped in a nearby river many times the level considered safe by the EPA.  Related crimes involve those where pollutants are dumped into water that is specifically used for drinking water for a population, such as that found in Flint, Michigan.  Just as with the illegal dumping law, investigators would have to prove you are the source of the pollution.

The Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. §7401 et seq. (1970) regulates air pollution from both moving sources, such as cars and boats, and from stationary ones, such as factories. Under this law it is also required that factories and other stationary sources of emissions install controls and technology to minimize their air pollution as much as possible.

What is a “Pollutant?”

Pollutants can be anything from coal smoke to chemicals emitted from burning certain substances. To be considered a “pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, however, the substance must be endangering the environment, humans or animals. Leaks and spills of gaseous substances that would pollute the air and vehicle emissions would also fall under this category.

Penalties for Violating

Violators of this law would be those who knowingly tamper with emission controls (such as in the Volkswagen case described at the bottom of this page) or those who simply do not comply with the emissions laws set forth in the Clean Air Act.  Depending on how egregious the violation was, those who violate the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are often simply fined and warned to make changes, with a mandatory inspection as a follow-up.

Related Crimes

Many related crimes, such as creating fraudulent reports to cover up negligence and intentional wrongdoing, do usually result in some prison time. An example of one of these cases would be that of a powerhouse operator at Westward Seafoods, Inc in 2015 who falsified documents after turning off controls that regulate chemicals being released into the air.

The Endangered Species Act

  The Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §1531 et seq. (1973), was enacted to protect flora and fauna that are in danger of extinction and their habitats.  As with most of the laws that fall under federal environmental crimes, permits can be acquired for specific reasons, but they are heavily controlled.


Examples of ways a person could break these laws would be doing any of the following without a permit that specifically allows the act:

  • Breeding,
  • Killing,
  • Capturing, or
  • Intentionally injuring a protected species,
    • Example: Removing some of an endangered fish from a stream.
  • Doing anything that would damage its environment.
    • Example: Altering the course of a stream that contains endangered fish.

Penalties for Violating

These laws are federal and apply to individuals and companies and depending on the severity of the crime, range from fines to jail time.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. §6901 et seq. (1976), regulates hazardous materials from their creation to disposal. It also establishes management controls for non-hazardous materials. This includes procurement, transportation and management of the waste products.

Due to the toxicity and hazardous nature of some of these products and wastes, even being in possession of these substances without a permit is also a crime. Even dealing with non-hazardous materials requires a permit, such as when deciding on a method of disposal.  Basically, a person or entity cannot just dump waste anywhere. They must use designated areas or methods.


Richard Delp of Cedar Valley Electroplating did not obtain the proper permits for maintaining and disposing of hazardous waste. Operations of the company yielded thousands of tons of the waste and nothing was done with it. Mr. Delp then closed operations, but left the hazardous waste all over the plant, leaving the EPA Superfund to clean it. Due to these actions, or lack thereof, Mr. Delp received a fine and prison time.

Who Enforces Environmental Crimes?

   Federal environmental crimes are typically investigated and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  EPA agents investigate the most serious violations, including large oil or fuel dumps into water or marshlands or killing endangered species.

High-Profile Cases of Federal Environmental Crimes:

  • Volkswagen.  The 2017 investigation into Volkswagen for intentionally selling vehicles in the U.S. with software meant to cheat the emissions testing that is common in many U.S. states.  VW was convicted of 3 different felony crimes associated with the act and a $2.8 billion fine. This was the largest fine ever charged on a car company. They were also ordered to pay another $1.5 billion for the EPA’s civil case against them for the damage those vehicles did to the environment.
  • Exxon Valdez.  Another big case from back in 1989 involved the oil giant Exxon Valdez.  Thousands of gallons of oil spilled into an otherwise untouched wilderness, killing of hundreds of thousands of fish and animals, almost wiping out local populations of them.  The EPA also investigates individuals, such as the case with 2 individuals that purchased a commercial property and, despite being warned that asbestos was present, proceeded to illegally remove and dispose of it.  
  • Montrose Chemical Corporation of California.  A recent example of a Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act violation is when the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California was caught dumping thousands of tons of  Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT) into California sewers and in coastal waters near their plants. According to reports, the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California began producing a new “wonder pesticide” after World War II — which was DDT.  Ultimately, it was found that the corporation ignored increasing scientific concerns about the pesticide. Montrose was aware that the chemical was a pesticide, as that is what they sold it for, and still knowingly illegally dumped it. This resulted in widespread environmental damage and contamination of ocean sediments on the floor of the Palos Verdes Shelf.  This resulted in millions in fines and helped developed stricter laws on the subject.

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If you would like to learn more about any of the federal environmental crimes discussed above, call the Criminal Lawyer Group now.