The Environmental Crimes Section a Historical Perspective . . .
by Michael A. Staub,
Senior Supervisory Special Agent
In the mid-1970s, many Americans first became aware of the potential impact that the disposal of hazardous waste could have on the environment. During that time, it was a common practice to dispose of drums of hazardous waste in landfills. Fortunately, in subsequent years, we, as a nation, have become more knowledgeable about the negative effects this type of activity has on our environment. In the early 1970s, however, these effects were still unknown.
One of the first major environmental situations to gain national attention was at Love Canal, located near Niagara Falls, New York. This incident awoke America to the horrors of hazardous waste disposal. Hooker Electro-Chemical Company (Hooker), which was acquired by Occidental Chemical Company in 1968, buried over 21,000 tons of toxic waste on the site in the mid-1950s. This disposal site was capped and sold, and in 1954, a school was built there. By the mid-1970s, chemicals that had been buried twenty years earlier by Hooker migrated to the surface. On August 7, 1978, then President Jimmy Carter issued the first federal state of emergency for a nonnatural environmental disaster. Shortly thereafter, over eight hundred families were asked to evacuate their homes.
After Love Canal, state agencies and state legislators began to take action to insure that these types of situations would not occur in their states. In the late 1970s, the State of New Jersey started its own investigative unit to deal strictly with environmental crime issues. As New Jersey began to crack down on environmental crimes, violators started to cross state borders into states where the laws were not as stringent to dispose of hazardous waste. This started a domino effect in which Pennsylvania, and other states, were forced to deal with this situation.
On February 13, 1980, then Pennsylvania Attorney General Edward G. Biester, Jr. (who headed what was known at the time as the Pennsylvania Department of Justice) submitted an application to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency for a grant of federal and state funds to be used to establish a Toxic Waste Investigation & Prosecution Unit (Unit). Later that same year, the Pennsylvania Department of Justice received monies through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) to fund such a project for a two year period. With this funding, the Toxic Waste Investigation & Prosecution Unit was established with a staff of one attorney and two investigators. Thus, one of the first units in America dedicated solely to investigating environmental crimes was formed.
The Toxic Waste Investigation & Prosecution Unit was set up to work closely, in a task force model, with representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER). In this manner, the Unit could combine the investigative and prosecutorial expertise of the Pennsylvania Department of Justice with the environmental and scientific expertise of DER.
Also in 1980, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted the Solid Waste Management Act which created felony offenses for the illegal management of hazardous waste and also provided jail terms and large fines for committing other hazardous waste offenses. Prior to the enactment of this statute, these offenses were handled primarily as summary littering violations. Therefore, with passage of this Act, Pennsylvania now had teeth for fighting environmental crimes.
Soon after its formation, the Unit began assuming responsibility for the then ongoing joint investigation and prosecution of the Pittston bore hole case, in which waste transported by a New Jersey company, Hudson Oil Refining Corp., had been surreptitiously dumped down a bore hole (a mine-ventilation shaft) located on the property of a Luzerne County, Pennsylvania truck stop. Waste dumped into the bore hole accumulated in an abandoned coal mine until eventually, in July of 1979, it began pouring out of the Butler mine tunnel entrance and into the Susquehanna River.
Millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, including waste known to cause cancer and birth defects, formed a massive oily slick on the river, at one point threatening the water supply of Danville, Pennsylvania, 60 miles downstream. For a time, the chemicals reached near explosive concentrations and officials were on the verge of ordering a mass evacuation.
The Pittston bore hole case ultimately resulted in the convictions of the Hudson Oil Refining Corp., the company's President, as well as six other officials and employees of the company, and the three operators of the truck stop. In fact, the company President, Russell Mahler, was sentenced to a one year prison term. This marked the first time in the United States that a corporate official was imprisoned on illegal dumping charges. Also, as a result of this case, the company was fined $750,000.
Even though the LEAA grant expired in 1982, due to its success, the Unit continued to operate through state funding, investigating allegations of illegal management and unlawful disposal of various types of waste.
Around 1984, the Toxic Waste Investigation & Prosecution Unit expanded by opening regional offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Also around this time, another landmark case was being investigated by the Unit. William Fiore operated a landfill business, known as the Municipal and Industrial Disposal Company, located in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which was licensed by DER to dispose of toxic waste in accordance with DER's strict regulations. The Unit began probing allegations that Fiore was improperly disposing of waste and illegally dumping some toxic waste into the Youghiogheny River. A search warrant was obtained and samples were collected from the landfill. The samples were analyzed by DER's Bureau of Laboratories and the results confirmed the allegations. Charges were filed and Fiore was tried, convicted and then sentenced to 6-12 years in prison and fined $200,000. Meanwhile, other Office of Attorney General investigators were pursuing allegations that Fiore had bribed state and local officials. That probe also resulted in a conviction and a separate 3-6 year prison sentence for Fiore.
Later yet, Fiore was once again convicted in a third Office of Attorney General case. This time on charges that, in 1985, he had tried to arrange for the murder of a DER official who had attempted to force the landfill to operate in accordance with DER regulations.
In the mid-1980s, the Unit found itself investigating William Lavelle, a businessman involved in the illegal disposal of approximately 3.6 million gallons of waste down a bore hole in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as well as, the illegal disposal of almost 10,000 drums of waste in a Scranton area landfill. The Commonwealth alleged that Lavelle grossed approximately $581,000 from these activities and ultimately charged Lavelle with violating Pennsylvania's Corrupt Organization statute in that Lavelle had engaged in a pattern of Thefts by Deception given that Lavelle?s customers did not receive what they had paid for - the lawful disposal of waste materials. Lavelle was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to serve 1½ to 4 years in prison. It is believed that this was the first time a corrupt organization statute was used in an environmental crime case.
On September 1, 1986, then Attorney General LeRoy S. Zimmerman, expanded the Toxic Waste Investigation & Prosecution Unit ultimately creating an entire "section" within the Office of Attorney General under this name. In 1989, the name of the Section was changed to the Environmental Crimes Section (ECS or Section). The name change was appropriate in that the Section was now dealing with a variety of environmental crime issues, not just toxic and/or hazardous waste crimes.
The Section continued to grow along with the successes of its cases. In the mid to late 1980s, an investigator was assigned to the Scranton office. In 1990, regional offices were opened in both Williamsport and Meadville with two investigators and one prosecutor assigned to each of these offices. This growth signified the Office of Attorney General?s continued commitment to investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes.
The ECS demonstrated its abilities to investigate and prosecute water pollution violations in a case involving the Evitts Creek Water Company and the City of Cumberland, Maryland. On May 5, 1994, the Section filed charges against the City of Cumberland, Maryland, Evitts Creek Water Company, owned by the City of Cumberland, Maryland, and three employees of its water filtration plant in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. These charges alleged the defendant's violated provisions of Pennsylvania's Clean Stream Law, as well as the Fish and Boat Code. The Commonwealth alleged that employees at the water filtration plant tested the plant's waste water improperly which resulted in the unreported discharge of higher then permitted levels of pollutants into Evitts Creek. The Commonwealth also charged that the City, the water company and one employee were also involved with the discharge of more than 4,000 gallons of a chemical, polyaluminum chloride, following an accident at the plant early in 1994. This discharge killed fish and other aquatic life.
On February 6, 1997, following a four day jury trial, the City, the water company and an employee of the water company were found guilty of violations of the Clean Stream Law and the Fish and Boat Code. Fines for the three defendants totaled $63,500.
Another milestone case investigated by the ECS involved C. R. Warner, Inc., a waste oil recycling business operating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On April 21, 1997, the ECS charged the company, and two of its corporate officers, Robert Krawiecki and Jerrold Rubinstein, with illegally storing and processing waste, including waste oil tainted with hazardous chemicals, in violation of the Solid Waste Management Act. The suspects were also charged with dumping fill into a wetland area along the Schuylkill River, a violation of Pennsylvania's Dam Safety and Encroachments Act. Furthermore, the corporation was charged with misleading state officials and falsifying plant records.
During the summer of 1997, Krawiecki, Rubinstein, and the Corporation pleaded no contest to the charges and the defendants were sentenced to pay a total of $370,000 in fines, costs and other payments.
Relationship with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
The Environmental Crimes Section continues to receive support and assistance from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) (Prior to its reorganization, on or about July 1, 1995, DEP was part of the former DER). The DEP continues to provide the use of its Bureau of Laboratories for the analysis of samples taken by the Section; the services of its response van; the assistance of manpower (mainly from DEP's Bureau of Investigations) during the execution of search warrants, as well as the resources and knowledge of DEP's six regional offices and DEP's Office of Chief Counsel.
The ECS also relies on DEP in one other important area - the referral of cases. Under the Commonwealth Attorneys Act, the Office of Attorney General does not have original jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute environmental crimes. The Office of Attorney General usually gains jurisdiction of an environmental crimes case by either a referral from DEP or a District Attorney. See, 71 Pa. C.S.A. § 732-205(a)(6) and (a)(3) respectively.
ECS Personnel, Training and Practices
The special agents assigned to the ECS come from a variety of backgrounds, including former police officers, firemen, and civil investigators. The prosecutors also came from a variety of areas, including District Attorney's Offices, DEP, and private practice. The vast variety of experiences of both the special agents and attorneys has proven invaluable to the success of the Section.
As one might expect, the agents in the Section are mandated to attend certain specialized training courses. One such course teaches the agents how to properly take samples for analysis and another instructs the agents how to wear protective clothing, such as chemical resistant suits, gloves and booties. This same course also teaches the agents how to utilize safety equipment, such as a self-contained breathing apparatus similar to the respirators and air tanks worn by firemen.
This type of training proves important when the Section conducts search warrants. Conducting a search pursuant to a warrant can include opening containers, such as 55-gallon drums, to sample the contents, or sampling fluids from waste streams. These can be very dangerous situations and the utmost caution is utilized. The agents wear protective clothing and use breathing apparatus, liked those described above, as well as use equipment to monitor atmospheric conditions in these types of situations. It is common for the Section to utilize the services of excavation equipment, such as bulldozers and backhoes, to assist in uncovering suspected illegally buried wastes.
Often during a search, the agents will also obtain labeling information off of the drums or containers found, in an attempt to trace the drums to the manufacturer and/or user of the material. It is also commonplace for agents of the Section to seize, for later review, voluminous amounts of documents during the execution of search warrants.
Even though much of the above described investigative activity is different from investigative work performed by most criminal investigators, this is not always the case. Special agents assigned to the ECS also perform the same type of traditional investigative work as any other criminal investigator, including interviews, surveillances and record checks.
Today and Beyond
Today, the function of the ECS remains very similar to its original purpose. The Section continues to investigate violations of the Commonwealth's environmental and criminal statutes involving the management of solid, municipal, residual, and hazardous wastes. In addition, the Section also prosecutes more traditional crimes code offenses, such as Theft by Deception, Unsworn Falsification to Authorities and Forgery, which spring from environmental crimes investigations. Of late, the Section is becoming more involved with water pollution, air pollution and records falsification cases.
What does the future hold? Environmental crimes have always been and always will be primarily a money driven, economic crime. As cost of waste disposal rises, it becomes easier for some companies and/or individuals to ignore the environmental regulations and statutes and illegally dispose of waste, or falsify documents, for the sole purpose of saving a dollar. As long as this mentality exists, there will be a need for the ECS. The ECS will strive to meet this challenge and attempt to remain recognized as one of the most successful Sections of its kind in America.
Hopefully, one day the need for the ECS will diminish. This can only mean that companies and individuals will have learned to be responsible and follow the environmental laws and regulations. If that day comes, the world will truly be a better place.
*The author is currently the Senior Supervisory Special Agent with the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General's Environmental Crimes Section, a Section within the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He has been a member of that Section since its inception in 1980. He also instructs nationally on environmental crime issues and has co-authored an article on this topic.
**The author wishes to thank Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher J. Costantini, of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Environmental Crimes Section, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.