02.15.11

Leahy Introduces Bill To Boost Penalties For Environmental Crimes

SJC Chairman Continues Effort To Hold Big Oil Accountable

WASHINGTON (Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Tuesday renewed his efforts to enact legislation to enhance penalties for corporations and individuals responsible for environmental crimes.  Leahy first introduced the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act in June 2010, following the April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Leahy authored bill will strengthen penalties for companies who violate the Clean Water Act and provide victims of environmental crime with access to compensation for their loss.  An important goal of the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act is to ensure that there are meaningful penalties for corporate misconduct including prison time, not fines alone, which can be a mere cost of doing business.  The Judiciary Committee approved the legislation last year, but it was not acted on by the full Senate.

“This bill takes two common sense steps – well-reasoned increases in sentences and mandatory restitution for environmental crime,” said Leahy.  “These measures are tough but fair. They are important steps toward deterring criminal conduct that can cause environmental and economic disaster and toward helping those who have suffered so much from the wrongdoing of big oil and other large corporations.”

The Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act directs the Sentencing Commission to review and amend sentencing guidelines to reflect the seriousness of environmental crime.  It also makes restitution mandatory for Clean Water Act violations.  Under current law, restitution is discretionary, and only available under limited circumstances.  The Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act will help victims like those affected by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, including the families of those killed by the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, seek compensation for their losses caused by criminal activity.

The Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act is cosponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

Leahy chaired a Judiciary Committee hearing last summer in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster to examine victim compensation and the existing liability caps for corporations responsible for the cleanup of such disasters.

The text of the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act is available online.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Introduction Of The “Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act”
February 15, 2011

Today, I reintroduce the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act (ECEA), to help ensure that those who destroy the lives and livelihoods of Americans through environmental crime are held accountable for their actions. This common sense legislation was reported by the Judiciary Committee with overwhelming support last year. I hope the Senate will act on it in this Congress.

The tragic explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig last year is just one example of why this legislation is needed.  Eleven men died in that explosion, and oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico for months, with deadly contaminants washing up on the shores and wetlands of the Gulf Coast. The catastrophe threatened the livelihood of many thousands of people throughout the Gulf region, as well as precious natural resources and habitats. The people responsible for this and other catastrophes should be held accountable, and wrongdoers – not taxpayers – should pay for the damage they have done. This bill will help to deter environmental crime, protect and compensate victims of environmental crime, and encourage accountability among corporate actors. 

First, the ECEA is drafted to deter schemes by Big Oil and others that damage our environment and hurt hardworking Americans by increasing sentences for environmental crimes. All too often corporations treat fines and monetary penalties as a mere cost of doing business to be factored against profits. To deter criminal behavior by corporations, it is important to have laws that result in prison time.  In that light, this bill directs the United States Sentencing Commission to amend the sentencing guidelines for environmental crimes to reflect the seriousness of these crimes. 

Criminal penalties for Clean Water Act violations are not as severe as for other white-collar crimes, despite the widespread harm the crimes can cause. As last year’s crisis in the Gulf of Mexico makes clear, Clean Water Act offenses can have serious consequences in people’s lives and on their livelihoods.  These consequences should be reflected in the sentences given to the criminals who commit them. This bill takes a reasonable approach, asking the Sentencing Commission to study the issue and raise sentencing guidelines appropriately, and it will have a real deterrent effect.

This bill also aims to help victims of environmental crime – the people who lose their livelihoods, their communities, and even their loved ones – reclaim their natural and economic resources. To do that, ECEA makes restitution mandatory for criminal Clean Water Act violations.  

Currently, restitution in environmental crimes – even crimes that result in death – is discretionary, and only available under limited circumstances. Under this bill, those who commit Clean Water Act offenses would have to compensate the victims of those offenses for their losses.  That restitution could help the people of the Gulf Coast rebuild their coastline and wetlands, their fisheries, and their livelihoods should criminal liability be found. 

Importantly, this bill will allow the families of those killed to be compensated for criminal wrongdoing.  The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig brought to light the arbitrary laws that prevent those killed in such tragedies from bringing civil lawsuits for compensation. This bill would ensure that, when a crime is committed, the criminal justice system can provide for restitution to victims, allowing the families of those killed to be given the means to carry on. 

This bill takes two common sense steps – well-reasoned increases in sentences and mandatory restitution for environmental crime. These measures are tough but fair. They are important steps toward deterring criminal conduct that can cause environmental and economic disaster and toward helping those who have suffered so much from the wrongdoing of big oil and other large corporations. I hope all Senators will join me in supporting this bill and these important reforms.

I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be included in the Record.

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