Environmental Crime

Ronald G Burns. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

Societal recognition of, and concern for, environmental issues waxes and wanes according to various factors and developments. For instance, recent concerns about global warming and increased costs of oil have contributed to enhanced societal concerns for environmental issues. Similar concern regarding oil shortages in the 1980s generated public concern for environmental issues, including the need for alternatives to fossil fuel-operated vehicles. The term environmental issues encompasses many different issues, including protection of the environment, sustainability, and environmental crimes. The last of these is the focus of this chapter.

Scientific and academic focus on environmental issues has contributed to the emergence of environmental studies as a distinct academic discipline. Such programs typically require an interdisciplinary approach to address the varied nature of environmental science. Studying environmental crime demands an interdisciplinary approach that includes fields such as biology, criminology, criminal justice, economics, sociology, chemistry, and psychology. Accordingly, criminologists have much to contribute to the study of environmental issues, primarily due to the significant occurrence of environmental crimes. Unfortunately, the study of environmental crime is in its infancy and much work remains to be completed.

Annually, far more people are killed from environmental crimes than from traditional homicides (Burns & Lynch, 2004), and millions more suffer ill effects from environmental harms. Yet, the study of environmental crime is largely absent from the criminal justice and criminology research literatures. Medical and environmental scientists, as well as sociologists, have studied various aspects of environmental harms; however, there is scant coverage of the crime and justice-related elements of environmental harms in the research literature. Criminologists have long studied traditional, or street crimes, often at the expense of environmental crime and other white collar offenses.

Environmental harms have traditionally been recognized by much of society as simply “the costs of doing business.” Fortunately, such acts are increasingly being recognized as the crimes they are. Most attention devoted to environmental crimes highlights the direct, visible, or primary harms associated with offenses against the environment. However, the initial, or direct harms stemming from environmental crimes often signify only a small portion of the associated harms. Many environmental crimes have substantial secondary, or indirect harms that may initially go unnoticed. Accordingly, these harms are sometimes not attributed to the criminal act.

Take, for instance, the harms associated with polluting a lake. The most obvious and direct harms associated with such an act may be the death of the fish in the lake or the discoloration of the water. Consider, however, the secondary effects such as individuals consuming the contaminated fish, swimming in the dirty lake, and drinking the polluted well water located close by the lake. These secondary harms from polluting the lake, which may very well result in serious illnesses or deaths, may not appear for years. The initial disconnect between the crime and the recognizable harms will likely result in any penalties for the offense being significantly disproportionate to the associated harms.

The term environmental crime has been used somewhat loosely thus far in this chapter. The following section discusses what, specifically, constitutes environmental crime. From a legal perspective, a crime cannot occur without a related law. Accordingly, the discussion of what constitutes an environmental crime is followed by an overview of environmental law. Laws serve little purpose if they aren’t enforced; thus, the section on environmental law is followed by coverage of enforcement efforts pertaining to environmental crime. The final section of this chapter addresses several issues likely to impact the future of the environment and, specifically, environmental crime.

What is Environmental Crime?

There are several ways to define environmental crime. From a legal perspective, one could define environmental crime as harms committed against the environment that are in violation of statutorily defined terms. Philosophers may expand this definition to include environmental harms that do not fall under legally proscribed guidelines. The varied interpretations of what specifically constitutes environmental crime generate particular challenges for many groups, including industry leaders, environmentalists, criminologists, and politicians. For the purposes of this chapter, environmental crime is defined as any act, or attempted act, committed against the environment that violates statutorily defined laws.

Environmental crime is often viewed as a form of white collar crime, particularly when considering that the actors involved in committing the illegal act often represent corporate interests. However, it is possible for individuals who don’t necessarily fit the mold of a white collar criminal, or are not committing crime on behalf of a business or corporation, to commit environmental crime. For instance, the individual who illegally disposes of his or her used car battery in a secluded area wouldn’t necessarily be considered a white collar criminal, yet he or she is certainly committing an environmental crime.

Similar to traditional crimes, environmental crime is committed by various groups and individuals in society. As noted, corporations are responsible for much environmental crime, particularly with regard to pollution and the disposal of hazardous waste. Individuals and small businesses also engage in environmental crime, for instance, when they illegally dump hazardous materials or simply engage in littering. Organized crime syndicates also engage in environmental crime, such as through illegally disposing of toxic and biohazardous materials for other enterprises.

Much crime and justice research effort and policy making are directed toward traditional crimes such as rape, robbery, burglary, and drug offenses. These and related offenses are certainly important to study and address; however, a strong argument could be made that environmental crimes are equally important. Even so, environmental crime remains understudied. Much of the discrepancy in the attention devoted to the two forms of crime (environmental crime and traditional crime) stems from the differences between the acts and the actors involved in each type. For instance, as mentioned, the harms resulting from environmental crime are often indirect. Environmental crimes also differ in that they are often committed by corporations. Further, environmental crimes differ from traditional crimes in that multiple individuals are often involved in their commission, and identifying who is responsible may be difficult. Identifying the perpetrator(s) of traditional crimes is often more easily done.

There are many other differences between environmental crimes and traditional crimes. For instance, environmental crimes are typically more multidimensional than traditional crimes. To illustrate, investigating an environmental crime requires specific skills and knowledge not often needed during investigations of traditional crimes. Environmental crimes often involve multiple victims, whereas traditional crimes typically involve one offender and one victim. Further, environmental crimes are often committed outside of the public’s view. For example, the public may be unaware that a factory is producing an illegal level of pollution. Finally, environmental crimes differ from traditional crimes in the legal responses they generate. For instance, environmental crimes are often considered civil matters that result in financial penalties, while traditional crimes are processed in criminal courts. In sum, environmental crime is different from traditional crimes in many ways, yet the two types of crime are similar in that they both pose notable threats to society and are responsible for substantial harms. Perhaps most critical to any discussion of environmental crime are the legal aspects associated with harming the environment.

Environmental Law

Significant legislation targeted toward environmental crime didn’t emerge until the latter half of the 20th century. Increased societal concern for the environment in the 1960s and 1970s generated major pieces of legislation designed to address environmental crime. Former President Richard Nixon, through executive order, created the federal-level Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. Prior to that date, there was scant societal attention directed toward environmental crimes and few sanctions available to address them. In other words, formal regulation of environmental crime existed in piecemeal fashion prior to 1970. The creation of the EPA generally coincided with a series of significant laws targeted at environmental crime.

Environmental laws are often complex given the atypical nature of environmental crime, the toxicity involved in many of the offenses, and the difficulty of translating scientific information into laws. Such laws must identify what constitutes a violation, the exposure level requirements, appropriate testing methods and equipment to be used, and the expected protocols. Further, environmental laws are often complex due to the political process in which multiple interests must be served. Particularly, legislators must consider the interests of industry, the public, and various interest groups. Adding to the complexity of environmental law is overlap among jurisdictions (e.g., state and federal) often associated with environmental crime, and the fact that multiple bodies of law may apply in particular situations (e.g., civil and criminal law). Finally, environmental laws are relatively new and many specifics have yet to be clarified in the courts. The laws are routinely challenged and often reinterpreted and redefined.

Among the more significant pieces of legislation regulating environmental protection are the Clean Water Act; Clean Air Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Discussion of the vast body of environmental law is beyond the scope of this chapter. Thus, this discussion is restricted to an overview of four pieces of major federal legislation regulating harms against the environment, with the goal of sharing the range of such laws.

The Clean Air Act was created in 1963 and amended in 1970, 1977, and 1990. Prior to passage of this act, there were no national standards regarding clean air in the United States. The legislation was designed to reduce air pollution levels through creating national, uniform standards for air quality. These standards are primarily assessed through evaluation of pollution emissions.

The Clean Water Act was originally passed as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972. The Clean Water Act (passed in 1977) was designed to prevent pollution discharges into waterways over which the federal government has constitutional authority. Further, the act was targeted to create fishable and swimmable waterways that protect marine animals and wildlife. To do so, the Clean Water Act utilizes a permit system and the designation of water quality standards.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund Act, provides the EPA broad powers to protect and restore the environment through requiring offenders to clean up hazardous waste sites. Under CERCLA, the EPA is permitted to take the necessary steps to protect public health and the environment with regard to hazardous waste sites that present an imminent hazard. The EPA may employ civil remedies to recover remediation costs in cases where a corporation or individual created a hazardous waste site. Provisions in CERCLA also allow the EPA to sue defendants for costs incurred by the federal government when cleanup or other remediation actions are needed.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) pertains to management of solid and hazardous wastes. RCRA seeks to establish a tracking system for hazardous solid waste that regulates its transport, handling, storage, and disposal. Through its provisions, the RCRA encourages reductions in solid waste via recycling and improvement in manufacturing technology, alternatives to land disposal, safe land disposal when such disposal is required, and increased state responsibility for managing solid waste disposal.

This discussion highlights only a few aspects of federal legislation pertaining to environmental protection. To be sure, there are many more pieces of federal legislation pertaining to environmental harms, and it is anticipated that there will be more to come. However, the federal government is not alone in legislating environmental protection. States create and enforce their own laws, which vary from state to state, and local governments may create specific statutes that address environmental crime. Federal environmental laws provide the legal minimums for environmental protection by which each state and municipality must abide.

Laws have little impact if they are not considered by potential or actual offenders, nor are laws necessarily effective if they are not enforced by regulating parties. Whether they be restrictions against polluting the environment or statutes regulating the transport or disposal of hazardous waste, laws provide boundaries for acceptable behavior and sometimes prescribe penalties for unacceptable behavior. Accordingly, legislation must be considered with regard to its ability to deter or dissuade criminal behavior, and the extent to which laws are enforced. Legislative bodies are continuously creating laws to protect the environment, although some interested parties would argue that more laws are needed. Of particular concern with regard to legislative actions, especially those pertaining to the environment, are the enforcement practices of regulatory and law enforcement agencies.

Enforcing Environmental Laws

The existence of environmental laws dictates the need for enforcement actions. Accordingly, numerous federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies oversee environmental protection; however, environmental laws are primarily enforced by the EPA (including its regional offices spread throughout the country) and state environmental regulatory agencies. Local law enforcement agencies also have responsibility for enforcing environmental laws; however, their role has been notably limited in this area given local law enforcement’s preoccupation with traditional, or street crime.

Environmental laws are enforced in a different manner from traditional crimes. For instance, the EPA regulates industry by gathering information via industry self-monitoring, industry record keeping and reporting, inspections by government officials (most of which are announced prior to the visit, and occur infrequently), and citizen complaints. When confronting violators, the EPA engages in administrative, criminal, or civil enforcement. The enforcement process typically is initiated by the EPA gathering information and requesting the alleged violator to cease the violating behavior. No further action is taken if the violator complies. Informal negotiations between the EPA and the violator, with the goal of remedying the problem, follow should the violator fail to comply. Civil or criminal actions may be imposed if the violator fails to comply with the request. Criminal enforcement is used as a last resort and requires the cases to be turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution. Very few environmental offenses are prosecuted in criminal court.

Enforcing environmental laws places the EPA and other agencies in a volatile, yet important position. For instance, the EPA is criticized by industry groups for impeding industrial progress, while environmentalists believe the EPA doesn’t do enough to protect the environment. Accordingly, the EPA must consider the interests of multiple groups in its enforcement practices.

The Federal Level

The EPA performs many duties and has numerous responsibilities. Although the agency’s objectives fluctuate over time, the EPA consistently focuses on regulating air and water pollution, hazardous waste, and hazardous chemicals. Organizationally, the EPA’s national office is in Washington, D.C., and it maintains 10 regional offices throughout the country. Each regional office is responsible for the execution of EPA programs throughout the region. Most EPA employees are located in regional offices.

Given its vast charges, the EPA is particularly vulnerable to changes in society. For instance, societal changes (e.g., enhanced public concern for pollution) may dictate that varying levels of emphasis be placed on specific issues, and the agency might adjust priorities based on changing EPA administrators and presidents. The EPA has been responsible for many great achievements and has conducted impressive work in protecting the environment. Given its challenging task of representing multiple interests, however, the EPA has been criticized for having unclear agency objectives, succumbing to strong political influences, and corrupt leadership.

The EPA is the primary, but not the sole federal agency responsible for protection of the environment. Other federal agencies maintain partial jurisdiction over the environment, including the Department of Agriculture, which has authority over the National Forest Service, grasslands, and natural resources; the Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases related to the environment; the Department of Defense, which has jurisdiction over military installations, including the handling and disposition of chemical and nuclear weapons; the Department of Energy, including the Office of Environmental Management; and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which works closely with the Department of Defense concerning issues pertaining to nuclear fuel and radioactive materials/waste.

Several other federal agencies have some level of environmental authority, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Maritime Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission. The EPA also works closely with other groups and agencies that are interested in protecting the environment, including the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of the Interior (DOI). The EPA also works closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For instance, in April 2008 the DHS and the EPA jointly hosted a 3-day conference to address high-priority technical challenges for assessing risk of exposure to pathogens.

State-Level Environmental Enforcement

By 1990, each U.S. state had an environmental regulatory agency charged with protecting the environment. Each state regulatory agency must address the unique challenges posed by environmental concerns in its respective state. The EPA works closely with state environmental regulatory agencies, primarily through its regional offices. This decentralized approach to environmental protection is beneficial, as each state can focus on specific environmental issues. Such decentralization, however, limits the EPA’s environmental protection efforts, as decision-making authority is dispersed among multiple levels of government.

State environmental regulatory agencies must adopt federal environmental protection standards, although they may impose more stringent regulations than those required at the federal level. As such, there exists much variation among the enforcement practices of the state regulatory bodies. Further contributing to the variation among state environmental regulatory agency practices are differing societal views of particular environmental issues, state fiscal issues, the influence of various interest groups, and the geographic distribution of particular industries and natural resources across the country. State environmental regulatory agencies provide significant protection of the environment.

Law Enforcement and the Environment

Aside from state and federal environmental regulatory agencies, law enforcement agencies at all levels enforce environmental law. Historically, local law enforcement has played a limited role in environmental law enforcement, although their involvement in this area has expanded in recent years as local agencies have become increasingly aware of environmental crime. Through their routine activities such as patrolling, local law enforcement officers are aptly situated to identify and react to environmental harms. The training of local-level law enforcement officers to identify and respond to environmental crimes has been limited, and, historically, officers generally believed that environmental crimes were not worthy of their attention or were the responsibility of other agencies. However, increased concern for homeland security has encouraged local law enforcement officers to become more cognizant of issues beyond street crime, and they are increasingly being trained to detect and respond to environmental crimes.

Issues pertaining to homeland security garnered much public attention following the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. To some extent, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fear surrounding the possibility of additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, shifted public attention away from environmental harms. In response to concerns over homeland security, local-level law enforcement agencies are tasked with the additional and substantial burden of recognizing and reacting to terrorist threats, which could distract them from dealing with environmental crimes. However, efforts toward homeland security certainly involve recognizing terrorist attacks against sites that fall under the jurisdiction of environmental protection agencies, which could lead to enhanced scrutiny of these locations. Further, terrorist threats could increase local law enforcement’s recognition of environmental harms as law enforcement agencies increase in size and officers become increasingly responsible for identifying and responding to unusual activity.

Public Involvement in Addressing Environmental Crime

The general public performs a vital role in addressing environmental crime. Public attitudes help shape societal action, and public action typically follows enhanced societal concern for the environment. The actions may include government and industry responses to public pressure, or they can be the result of the public taking a proactive approach to environmental concerns—for instance, as recognized in the contributions of the various environmental movements in recent history.

Recent concern for environmental issues has contributed to the public becoming more responsive to environmental crimes. This is not a unique situation; for example, public attitudes toward environmental crime shifted during the 1980s when the general public became more likely to view environmental crimes as notably harmful acts and not simply the costs of doing business.

Currently, many Americans are troubled by the “greenhouse effect;” global warming; contamination of soil and water by toxic waste; maintenance of the nation’s supply of fresh water for household needs; and pollution of drinking water, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Some of this concern undoubtedly stems from Nobel Peace Prize–winner Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which highlighted the effects of environmental degradation and won an Academy Award.

Grassroots efforts have contributed much to environmental protection, particularly with regard to the detection of environmental crimes. Such efforts facilitate the prevention and resolution of environmental crime at a local level by addressing particular concerns often overlooked by corporations, politicians, and government entities such as law enforcement and regulatory agencies. Accordingly, there is a demonstrated need to confront environmental harms at the local level as opposed to the historical practice of relying on the seemingly distant federal and state agencies to confront environmental issues. Similar to the recent emphasis on community-oriented policing in which the police have greater interaction with the public and rely on citizens to assist in crime-fighting endeavors, grassroots efforts provide a vital supplement to bureaucratic state and federal regulatory efforts regarding environmental law enforcement.

The many challenges associated with addressing environmental crime undoubtedly hamper efforts to protect the public. For instance, consider that regulatory agencies are primarily responsible for enforcing environmental laws, and the penalties associated with committing environmental crime are arguably ineffective as a form of deterrence, rehabilitation, or retribution. The approach taken by regulatory agencies in response to environmental crime largely contrasts with approaches to dealing with traditional crimes (i.e., regulation versus prosecution).

What to Expect and What’s Needed with Regard to Environmental Crime

Societal concerns regarding oil prices and global warming have encouraged citizens to become more environmentally conscious. Increasing oil costs have resulted in large SUVs becoming less visible on U.S. roadways and automakers developing alternatives to fossil-fueled vehicles. Recycling efforts are popular, as evidenced for instance in the marketing strategies of numerous large corporations who wish to appeal to environmentally friendly consumers. These and related developments bode well for the future of the environment.

Continuous protection of the environment, particularly through addressing environmental crime, is dependent upon many factors. The following addresses several issues of consideration with regard to effective environmental protection, with an emphasis on addressing environmental crime. While not a comprehensive list, these items will undoubtedly have significant impacts on environmental protection, including the prevention, detection, and enforcement of environmental crimes.

Scholarly Attention

Traditional crimes are highlighted by the media in news reports, on television, and in movies. Media coverage of environmental crime is much less obvious in society. For instance, empirical research on environmental crime doesn’t go back much further than the mid-1980s and early 1990s, as there were few empirical studies of environmental crimes prior to this time. Such skewed coverage of crime distorts public perceptions regarding the nature, seriousness, and frequency of both environmental and street crime. Increased research focus on environmental crime, including responses to such offenses, will presumably contribute to more effective regulation of the environment.

From a research perspective, the study of environmental crime is seemingly overshadowed by issues of conventional crime. To address this limitation, additional research on environmental crime could, among other things, assess the applicability of theoretical explanations of crime with regard to environmental offenses; identify challenges environmental crimes pose to the criminal justice system (e.g., evidence collection procedures, jurisdictional issues, etc.); highlight the harms associated with environmental crime; and observe the impact of particular sanctions imposed on environmental crime offenders. To be sure, environmental crime is an understudied, yet important area of focus.

The dearth of environmental crime research can be attributable to a historical lack of data available to researchers. In other words, there is little historical research in this area simply because researchers struggled to obtain data. Accordingly, it is important that useful environmental crime and related data be collected and made available to researchers to analyze and possibly impact policy practices. The EPA and other environmental regulatory agencies have made substantial progress in disseminating data that can be used to study environmental crime. Arguably, researchers can no longer cite the lack of data as a reason for neglecting the study of environmental crime.

Researchers suggest that the EPA and state environmental regulatory agencies should continue their current data collection process and provide more detailed and helpful information. Increasing the extent to which the EPA and other agencies collect data will undoubtedly require additional resources. Nevertheless, the future for the study of environmental crime seems promising, as the EPA and other environmental regulatory agencies have made considerable progress in providing data for environmental crime researchers and have offered grants and various forms of support for empirical evaluations. The increasing popularity of computer mapping programs, the continued development of academic studies/programs on environmental issues, and the ease with which environmental crime data can be collected online, among other factors, point to increased levels of environmental crime research in the years ahead.

Several obstacles could prevent enhanced levels of environmental crime research. Of particular importance is the government practice of removing “sensitive” information from public access. Concern for homeland security resulted in public agencies throughout the United States removing what were deemed sensitive documents from public access. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, prompted fears about additional attacks and the subsequent removal of information that could contribute to the study of environmental crime, although much information remains freely accessible. Time will tell if the heightened concern regarding terrorism continues and additional information is removed from public access.

The perpetuation of interdisciplinary studies is critical to the continued momentum of environmental crime research. The historical lack of cooperative work among researchers in various fields must be addressed if the study of environmental crime is to reach its potential. The various disciplines involved with the study of environmental crime dictate that more collaborative efforts are needed.


In simple terms, sustainability refers to the practice of continuously producing the necessities of human life with little to no harm to the environment. Sustainability, which involves substantial long-term planning, relies on effectively managing society’s material and energy needs and wants. Such management requires cooperation among various government agencies, with the goal of maximizing and replenishing natural resources. Accordingly, sustainability requires collaborative and cooperative efforts from various agencies and disciplines, and effective enforcement of environmental laws to protect against continued harms to the environment.

How can sustainability be practiced, and ultimately achieved? The answer to this question is quite complex; however, many efforts are currently underway as society moves closer to sustainable living. For instance, as mentioned earlier, recycling efforts are becoming increasingly popular. Recycling bottles, paper, and other products prevents the continued destruction of environmental resources. The manufacturing and driving of automobiles that don’t rely on fossil fuel provide additional examples. Automakers are currently seeking and increasingly producing alternatives to fossil fuel–powered vehicles in response to public demand. The use of reusable grocery sacks, as opposed to the environmentally harmful plastic bags, is another example of efforts toward sustainability, as is the effective prevention of environmental crime and enforcement of environmental laws.

“Green living,” which involves a demonstrated concern for the protection of environmental resources, is becoming more popular as society moves toward sustainable living. Much work remains for society to ensure that the necessary environmental resources will be available for future generations. Nevertheless, current concerns for sustainability, the enforcement of environmental laws, and every small effort individuals make toward environmental protection contribute to a more promising future.

Enhanced Enforcement Efforts

Consider a society in which there was a notably inappropriate level of social control. For instance, imagine what it would be like if street crimes were regularly dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, and the penalty for serious crimes such as rape and robbery was a warning, or perhaps a fine that provided little deterrent to offenders. What if police patrol efforts were announced, and those caught committing serious crimes were simply granted an opportunity to discontinue their criminal behavior? Such a situation would undoubtedly generate substantial public outcry and the need for enhanced social control efforts. Why, then, has society not effectively voiced concern over environmental crime and responses to it?

Society has not voiced substantial concern about environmental crime primarily because of the differences between environmental crime and street crime. For instance, as noted earlier, environmental crime is often viewed as the “costs of doing business,” and strong political interests often shield the true effects of environmental crime from the general public. Significant enhancements are needed for the effective enforcement of environmental laws.

Such enforcement is complex, however, and involves various groups, the criminal justice system, and enhanced legislation. Citizens could contribute, for example, by voicing their concerns and helping to identify harmful practices. Law enforcement agencies could become more cognizant of, and responsive to, harmful environmental practices. Stricter laws, including the increased use of criminal penalties as opposed to civil sanctions, would contribute to the enforcement of environmental laws, and the courts could increasingly recognize and treat environmental harms as something more than “business costs.” Further, correctional agencies could focus less on incapacitating those convicted of environmental crimes and more on deterrence, rehabilitation, and punishment. Needless to say, addressing environmental crime effectively is going to take commitment on behalf of many individuals, groups, and government and industry leaders.

As noted, recent concern about terrorism and homeland security could contribute to the enhanced enforcement of environmental laws. Federal law enforcement efforts seemingly became better organized with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and many state, county, and local law enforcement agencies have redirected their efforts toward identifying terrorist activities. These efforts, in turn, could substantially contribute to dealing more effectively with environmental crime as law enforcement agents become increasingly involved in the day-to-day activities of citizens and businesses alike. For instance, law enforcement efforts that result in the intrusion into industry for the purposes of national security could potentially expose environmental harms, or at the very least deter violators who perceive a greater sense of vulnerability given the government’s enhanced interest in their practices.

Political Change and Support for the Environment

Environmental protection in the United States is heavily dependent upon the actions of the federal government, and is particularly influenced by the president and the party affiliation of those controlling Congress. For instance, the president has substantial impact on environmental protection simply through being able to choose the administrator of the EPA. Historically, Republicans have promoted less regulation than Democrats, primarily due to Republicans maintaining greater support of industry. However, politicians are dependent on the public for votes and support, and in theory they respond to public opinion.

Environmental issues are regularly among the topics of discussion and debate in political elections, particularly those at the national level. Voters are often able to develop a better understanding of political candidates through recognizing how those who wish to be elected consider environmental issues. Those in support of environmental protection applauded former President Bill Clinton when he chose the environmentally friendly Al Gore for vice president. In contrast, those who were concerned about the environment were discouraged to see George W. Bush be elected to the presidency and even more discouraged when he chose Dick Cheney as vice president. Both Bush and Cheney have strong ties to industry, which signaled to environmentalists that they were going to be faced with numerous challenges during Bush’s presidency.

Increased Globalism

Addressing environmental crime will require much greater cooperative and collaborative efforts among countries as international commerce and more general interaction increasingly occurs. Such a change poses particular challenges to current enforcement efforts regarding domestic environmental crimes. International cooperation requires, at minimum, agreement by all involved parties that work is needed to protect the environment. Getting numerous countries with diverse cultural backgrounds and varied economic interests to agree on environmental crime prevention and resolution efforts is a daunting, albeit necessary task.

The need to consider issues beyond national boundaries is becoming popular in many countries, and global environmentalism is increasingly an area of concern. For instance, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, demonstrated the overall move toward global considerations of environmental issues. The summit involved a series of workshops, presentations, and exchanges between international organizations, industries, and various interest groups. Further, the fact that the EPA maintains an “Office of International Affairs” suggests that environmental concerns are not simply restricted to the United States, and the federal government recognizes the need for international efforts to protect the environment. Nevertheless, the United States, as a world leader in production and manufactured goods, faces specific challenges and maintains particular responsibilities that must be addressed with consideration given to environmental protection. Much work remains in the area of international environmentalism.


Environmental crimes continue to impact society. The significance of environmental harms, particularly with regard to public health and sustainability, is real. Much progress has been made in the short time that major environmental laws, and the EPA, have been in existence. While it is easy to draw attention to the limitations of environmental protection efforts, one must consider the progress that has taken place since 1970. Fifty years ago, there was no EPA. There were no substantial environmental laws. Environmental protection was a nonissue to many.

Now, consider the shape of the environment 50 years into the future. Is enough being done to ensure that the generations to come will not suffer the ill effects of today’s neglectful environmental practices? Continued development with regard to environmental protection will undoubtedly result in a safer, healthier environment for those who follow.

The future of environmental protection is full of hope. Progress toward a better environment demands consideration of the complexities inherent in environmental crime. For example, progress will require law enforcement and regulatory agencies to become increasingly familiar with enforcement practices related to environmental crime. Legislation will need to continuously emerge and develop, society must maintain its interest in environmental protection, and sustainability will hopefully be the status quo and not simply a buzzword. Further, researchers will need to extend beyond their academic boundaries, and countries will need to work collaboratively as expansive efforts are required for environmental protection. Anything less would be a step backward in the evolution of environmental protection and contribute to the ignorance of environmental crime.