FORMING AN ENVIRONMENTAL TASK FORCE

FORMING AN ENVIRONMENTAL TASK FORCE

Economic conditions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as in many other communities, have forced cutbacks in spending that often mean fewer staff members in municipal departments. Such cutbacks have a significant impact on the fire service in that they curtail services in areas that affect responders’ health and safety. One of these areas is enforcement of environmental regulations. Fewer inspections mean less enforcement; less enforcement increases the possibility that an incident will occur.

In Philadelphia, the process of having the City Solicitor’s Office bring civil charges against violators of environment-related regulations was ineffective, through no fault of the agency. Some violators readily would accept the assessed fines as a “cost of doing business.” Moreover, the fines usually were small in comparison with the expense needed to correct the violation. In some cases, threatening bankruptcy or intimating that a declaration of bankruptcy was possible slowed the system down even more.

Frustrated by these conditions, our Hazardous Materials Administration Unit contact met with the city’s district attorney and solicitor to explore the possibility that the unit could conduct its own criminal investigations legally, separate from or in conjunction with civil litigation. The fire department reasoned that it could not afford to allow difficult economic conditions to prevent or erode compliance with environment-related regulations.

The Environmental haw Unit of the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office arranged for the unit to meet with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to determine if it could help the city and fire department in their efforts to improve the compliance situation. At that meeting, the Philadelphia Environmental Criminal Task Force idea was conceived. Its members would be representatives from all of the agencies concerned with the city’s environmental issues.

BUILDING A TASK FORCE

We then set out to develop the Philadelphia Environmental Criminal Task Force.

Members. We first determined that the members of the task force would include representatives from the agencies that have jurisdiction in enforcing environmental regulations and that respond to incidents involving substances that can affect the environment. Among them are the fire department, police department, health department, water department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (criminal and civil), State Department of Environmental Resources/Protection, offices of the city or county district attorney and solicitor, office of the state attorney general, and office of the U.S. Attorney General.

Meetings. We then scheduled a meeting with the supervisors of the agencies that would participate in the task force. The first meeting was restricted to supervisors, since the agenda focused on the role specific to each agency and the restraints and problems each agency encounters.

A second meeting was held soon after the first one. At this session, each agency provided a report outlining the strengths and weaknesses of its unit and listing the resources it could provide. Examples of a fire department’s strengths would be its receiving hazardous-materials violation referrals from its engine companies, being a member of the local emergency planning committee (LEPC), responding to all incidents concerning haz mats, having access to real estate information, and operating its own photo lab. Some examples of weaknesses would be a lack of enforcement powers, a chemical lab, or qualifications/equipment to take samples.

Regular meetings of task force representatives are held approximately every six weeks. Subcommittees consisting of regulators or law enforcement personnel convene as needed, according to the nature and amplitude of the investigations.

Workshop. Prior to implementing the task force, we held a workshop for all agency members, some of whom served on discussion panels that covered the following topics:

  • Environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act (direct discharge), Clean Water Act (pretreatment), Resource Conservation and RecoveryAct (RCRA), Comprehensive Environmental Resource Liability Act (CERCLA), Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), SARA Title III, Title 18 and state laws. The objective was to identify the basic elements of violations/ crimes under environmental statutes, the types of pollutants regulated under each statute, the most common violations under each statute, and the common loopholes.
  • The role of the inspector in environmental enforcement, covering aspects such as an introduction to civil and criminal procedures, the distinction between state and federal laws, the role of an inspector vs. that of a criminal investigator, and the various levels of authority and constitutional limits.
  • Practical training, emphasizing safety, especially as it pertains to OSH A 1910.120 Hazardous Waste Operation and Emergency Response and other subjects, including sampling techniques.
  • Recognizing and responding to environmental crimes, with particular emphasis on analyzing case studies, role playing, and distinguishing between common scenarios that are appropriate or not appropriate for referral for further action.

At a press conference held soon after the workshop, we announced that the task force had been formed and explained how the public could contact the body to report environment-related situations or incidents for investigation. The publicity also serves to place violators on notice that if they choose to violate environmental laws, they will be dealt with swiftly.

Combining forces and resources has made it possible to improve compliance with environmental legislation through civil litigations and, when necessary, criminal proceedings. It became apparent at the early meetings that task force members shared the same frustrations concerning repeat offenders—and even the names of the same violators—as the fire department.

The Philadelphia Environmental Criminal Task Force is making a difference. As the result of a referral to the task force by the Philadelphia Fire Department, an electroplating corporation and its president agreed, under a plea agreement, to pay SI20,000 restitution to the city of Philadelphia and a SI00,000 fine and has agreed to continue to take steps to correct the long-standing environmental problems at the facility and to properly dispose of its hazardous waste. Citations included a misdemeanor count of violating the Clean Water Act (direct discharge) and one felony count of violating the RCRA (illegal storage of hazardous waste).

The plant uses various cyanides and metals in its operations and is subject to pretreatment standards established pursuant to Title 33, United States Code, Section 1317 (d). The task force determined that the facility violated regulations pertaining to pretreatment permits and the illegal storage of hazardous waste.

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