06.09.10

Leahy Introduces Bill To Strengthen Penalties For Environmental Crimes

...Bill Would Ensure Big Oil, Other Companies Are Accountable To Victims Of Environmental Crime

WASHINGTON – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Wednesday introduced legislation to hold accountable oil and other companies responsible for environmental crimes.  The Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act will also protect victims of environmental crime by mandating restitution for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

The legislation is aimed at deterring environmental crime and protecting and compensating victims of environmental crime.  The Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act (ECEA) will deter schemes by oil companies and other companies that damage the environment, often times at the expense of working Americans and the economy, by increasing sentences for environmental crimes.  The bill will also amend current law to make restitution for violations of the Clean Water Act mandatory.   Under current law, restitution for such violations, including those that result in loss of human life, is discretionary.

“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 ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from the April 20 explosion on a British Petroleum oil rig has brought a renewed focus on ensuring corporate accountability for recovery costs and for restitution for those affected by such natural disasters.  The Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act directs the Sentencing Commission to amend the sentencing guidelines for environmental crimes to reflect the seriousness of the crime.  The bill aims to ensure that sentences and other penalties for environmental crimes are not merely a cost of doing business, but rather a meaningful penalty for corporate misconduct.

Oil has been spilling into the Gulf of Mexico for the last 50 days.  Leahy chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday to examine existing liability caps for corporations responsible for the cleanup of such disasters.  On Tuesday, Leahy introduced legislation to amend the Death on the High Seas Act to permit families of victims killed on the high seas to seek non-economic damages in the wake of tragedies like that of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.  The bill is known as the Survivors Equality Act.

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”
June 9, 2010

Today, I introduce the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act (ECEA), common sense legislation that will ensure that those who destroy the lives and livelihoods of Americans through environmental crime are held accountable.

It has been 50 days since the collapse of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig, which killed 11 men.  Oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, and deadly contaminants are washing up on the shores and wetlands of Gulf Coast states.  This catastrophe threatens the livelihood of many thousands of people throughout the region, as well as precious natural resources and habitats.  The people responsible for this catastrophe must be held accountable; they, not the American taxpayers, should pay for the damage and the recovery.  The bill I introduce today aims to deter environmental crime, protect and compensate its victims, and encourage accountability among corporate actors. 

First, ECEA will deter schemes by Big Oil and other corporations and industries that damage our environment and hurt hardworking Americans by increasing sentences for environmental crimes. All too often, corporations treat fines and monetary penalties as merely a cost of doing business to be factored against profits.  To deter criminal behavior by corporations, it is important to have laws resulting 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 such crimes can cause.  As the current crisis makes clear, Clean Water Act offenses can have serious consequences on people’s lives and livelihoods, which 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 these offense for their losses.  That restitution will 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.   As we have seen in the BP case, arbitrary laws prevent those killed in tragedies like this one 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, providing some small measure of security for the families of those killed. 

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 important reform. 

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