True Tales of Eco-Crimes

From the files of the FBI

  • Mark D. Uehling
  • Feb 01, 1993
A WALL STREET tycoon named Paul Tudor Jones II assumed he could overlook the Clean Water Act. In 1987, he bought 3,272 unspoiled acres near Maryland's Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge as a duck-hunting retreat. Federal law clearly forbade all but essential building on these tidal marshes and wooded wetlands, which provide a haven for waterfowl, fish and hundreds of other creatures. Nonetheless, Jones started to build a 15,000-square-foot lodge and a waterfowl-processing facility on his land.

He filled 86 acres of ponds and estuaries with sand and dirt. He told his workmen to bulldoze trees and to lay roads. The once-rich wetland, according to a number of eye-witnesses, turned into a "moonscape."

The official referees of wetlands development, the Army Corps of Engineers, protested to Jones, first orally, then formally in writing. Twice. Corps inspectors were so horrified at what they called "blatant" disregard for the law that they decided to go beyond the usual civil suits and press criminal charges.

That's when the Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped in. Photographing and chronicling Jones's crimes, the bureau stopped the bulldozers. Faced with evidence accumulated by the FBI, Jones pled guilty to criminal negligence. He agreed to pay a $1 million fine, contribute $1 million to the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation-and sequester 80 percent of his property from development.

Using cameras, wiretaps, informants, computers, interrogation and undercover operatives, the FBI has begun to apply what it knows about white-collar crime to the relatively new arena of environmental law. Since October 1985, the bureau has won 225 cases against ecocriminals, a success rate of more than 70 percent. Perhaps the bureau's biggest environmental triumph so- far came four years ago when agents caught defense contractor Rockwell International mishandling plutonium-for which Rockwell paid a fine of $18.5 million.

The FBI's efforts have aroused criticism for declining verve and for shielding federal officials. Yet agents clearly have tackled polluters like Rockwell that stymied other enforcement authorities.

"The EPA has done fines, and that hasn't worked too well," says Andrew Manning of the FBI's Baltimore office. To create more effective deterrents, he believes that only criminal cases will have the financial and psychological impact. "Civil procedures don't have the ability to level fines that make people stop. You have to hit people where it hurts."

The FBI first began to work green cases in March of 1982, when the EPA asked for help. Breaking an environmental law "is a crime like any other," says Robert Chiaradio, a former FBI environmental crimes supervisor in Washington. "It's usually done by small businessmen who are trying to avoid paying proper disposal fees."

While there is no standard environmental case at the FBI, patterns do emerge. The bureau's interest is often piqued by a tip-many field offices advertise 24-hour hotlines. "Without tips we can't do a thing," says Special Agent Wayne E. McAllister of the FBI's office in Louisville, Kentucky.

Not long ago, McAllister himself received an anonymous tip about 55-gallon drums of hazardous waste buried in a vacant lot. With protective moonsuits and backhoes, the FBI and environmental experts dug up the site. The owner of the lot had attempted to hide the mess by pouring a concrete slab over it, a bit of cleverness that only incriminated him further.

In Buffalo, New York, an employee of an asbestos-removal firm named Safe Air Corporation called the local FBI hot line in 1990 to report that his company was taking asbestos out of a foundry without safety precautions. Asbestos was contaminating workers and drifting out of the plant onto a major road and into a residential area nearby. As FBI Special Agent Bernard G. Walsh recalls, "This individual had a family, and he was concerned about his family's health."

The caller was the second person to complain to the FBI about the asbestos. The first, however, had not supplied sufficient details about the violations for agents to get a search warrant.

Walsh met the second informant on a deserted street beside a schoolyard. The two sat in Walsh's car for hours, exploring and reviewing the allegations. Fearing the company might learn of the investigation and hide the evidence, Walsh and an assistant U.S. attorney worked all through one June night to hammer out technicalities for obtaining a search warrant. When a judge issued the warrant the following day, agents rushed to the foundry-and the informant's account proved correct.

When the engineer received death threats on the phone, the FBI advised the steel company and the asbestos contractor that the informant would be protected. The threats stopped. Safe Air pled guilty to violating the Clean Air Act and paid a $5,000 fine.

Concern for humanity is not the only motive for those who whisper secrets to the FBI. Businesses have begun to help with investigations of corporate rivals. In Colorado, a law-abiding waste-treatment company quietly suggested that the FBI look into activities of the Denver Sanitary Corporation. FBI agents trailed the corporation's trucks, which supposedly took noxious chrome-plating liquids away for proper disposal. However, at night, the trucks illegally pumped the metal right into Denver's sewage system, which eventually drains into the Platte River. "You probably wouldn't know about that until you started catching three-headed trout," says Dick Schussler of the FBI in Denver.

Special surveillance cameras recorded Denver Sanitary's crime. The grand jury found the case persuasive; the company was convicted in 1987. "When you see a guy with a hose dumping stuff directly into the sewer, it's hard to believe he didn't know what he was doing," says Schussler. The middle of a typical investigation, gathering physical evidence, is not usually as dramatic as surveillance photography. The heart of most white-collar investigations comes from interviews and documents. Environmental cases are no exception: While investigating U.S. Sugar in Florida, the FBI subpoenaed 60,000 pages of company documents.

To obtain a plea-bargain agreement involving Frontier Chemical Waste Process of Niagara Falls, New York, the FBI deciphered manifests and labels for barrels of waste the company handled for a nearby tannery. Agents established in 1990 that clerks for the waste company and its affiliates used typewriter correction fluid to deliberately misclassify toxins as less-dangerous substances. Truckers then delivered roughly 40 barrels of re-labelled hazardous sludge to a low-cost landfill not equipped for hazardous wastes.

That meticulous analysis didn't make the national news. But the small company paid a $100,000 fine and was put gently to death - sold to another waste-treatment firm.

The dramatic Rockwell case came together because of painstaking, undramatic interrogation. One June morning in 1988, 75 agents spilled out of three dozen cars, trucks and vans. Carrying guns and briefcases, the FBI searched the huge plant at Rocky Flats and slowly interviewed its employees. "The case was made through talking to people and saying 'Do you know who told you to dump that?' " says Schussler. "You ask them, `Did you discharge a certain material on January 3,' and you know there was no permit for that day."

The end of an eco-investigation differs from other white-collar crimes. Agents grow concerned about public exposure to pollutants and may end the investigation at the earliest possible moment, instead of collecting a safety margin of extra evidence. When the bureau abruptly raided the plantations of U.S. Sugar in Florida on October 10, 1989, the search was timed to shut down key areas before the harvest and spare workers and the environment additional exposure to lead. Agents had flown over the property and photographed clumps of barrels. Around them were stains in unnatural shades of orange, black and green.

Every year, the nation's largest sugar cane processor had been mixing cane samples with lead subacetate, a standard chemical test for impurities, producing a waste solution more than two-thirds lead. Instead of shipping the mix to a hazardous-waste facility, U.S. Sugar just dumped the toxic sludge. The company even released the solution into canals around its mill, where lead could flow through the naturally high water table and contaminate the Everglades.

Before the FBI intervened, the company had been releasing about a ton of lead a year since the 1940's. As is typical of environmental cases, this one never went to trial. U.S. Sugar pled guilty and paid a $3.75 million fine. The company distributed press kits saying its acts were exaggerated. "It was disgusting," says Special Agent Timothy W. McCants.

Despite the successes, the FBI's record has a few smudges. Judging by figures supplied over several years by the agency itself, the number of agents assigned to ecocrime has steadily declined. Moreover, of 658 agents with advanced training in such cases, only 10 percent are working full-time on environmental cases at the moment. (That's about one half of one percent of the 10,500 agents in the bureau.)

What's more, the agency has never brought a major case against any top official of the federal government or senior manager at a large corporation. (Federal agencies have statutory immunity from prosecution, but in theory federal employees can be indicted.) In the Rocky Flats case the supervising officials at the site - employed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) - were never charged with anything. Rockwell shouldered all of the blame.

Going soft on federal employees, critics say, is a problem with the FBI's parent organization, the Justice Department. (The FBI collects facts; Justice Department attorneys decide what to do with them.)

"My speculation is that there were political reasons not to go after the DOE officials," notes Melinda Kassen, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund in Denver. "The U.S. attorneys here really pushed and what they got [the $18.5 million penalty] was extraordinary. But there was a line they could not cross. They were up against a political wall in terms of going after federal employees.'

Congress has similar suspicions. Last fall, the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held hearings on why DOE employees were never charged with crimes in the Rockwell deal. The FBI flatly denies that it shields bureaucrats from inquiry. "We go after government and private polluters," says FBI spokesman Nestor Michnyak in Washington, D.C.

Critics also question whether the FBI's spadework will ever put someone in prison. No FBI agent interviewed for this article could cite an environmental felon sentenced to jail.

FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys respond to the criticism by explaining the difficulties of bringing a criminal case under environmental laws. "Just because stuff is in the ground doesn't mean there is a crime," notes Martin J. Littlefield, an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York. "You have to show intent to harm, knowledge to harm or a definite intent not to learn about it." And that's not easy.

But the agents do acknowledge the importance of harsher sentences. "To send a message," says Buffalo's agent Walsh, "it's important to send someone to jail. Our job is to put people in jail."

Mark D. Uehling, based in Brooklyn, New York, often writes about science and environmental issues.

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