by Whit Gibbons

March 13, 2005

What's worse, littering or dumping illegal toxic waste dump? Obviously the latter, but convicting the perps in a white-collar environmental crime can be far more difficult than pulling a redneck over because he threw a beer can out of his pickup while driving in front of a patrol car. As with so many illegal activities, political influence and money can go a long way in protecting the most serious abuses while minor offenses can be easily singled out and dealt with expediently.

Ironically, most of us readily notice a road shoulder littered with paper, plastic bottles, and cans, whereas on the same highway we may give little thought to a smokestack spewing yellow smoke or to polluted industrial wastewater being dumped into a stream or river. A litterbug is easier to identify and arrest than a corporate polluter. But the insidious pollution of air and water does far more harm to the environment and our health than littering. Some of the more zealous environmentalists show utter disdain for someone who doesn't recycle household items, yet at the same time give little notice to improper disposal of waste by corporate, and even government, organizations. White-collar environmental crimes cost us much more in the long term than the more obvious personal negative assaults on the environment such as littering or failing to recycle.

So exactly what qualifies as white-collar environmental crime? The term "white-collar crime" was first used about 65 years ago by a criminologist named Edwin Sutherland. His definition of a "white-collar crime" was one committed "by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation." The fundamental feature is that such crimes are committed by individuals or corporations for financial gain and involve knowledgeable, educated participants who attempt to circumvent the law. Prosecution of white-collar environmental criminals is often complicated because of difficulties in gathering evidence and the complexities of interpreting and enforcing the laws.

According to one legal definition, an environmental crime involves any "willful criminal violation that results in actual and substantial harm to the water, ambient air, soil, or land." The FBI actually investigates white-collar environmental crimes, such as the discharge of toxic substances into the air, water, or soil that pose "a significant threat of harm to people, property, or the environment, including air pollution, water pollution, and illegal dumping, in violation of federal environmental law."

According to one account, the FBI estimates that white-collar crimes cost U.S. taxpayers more than $300 billion a year. A substantial number of these are for environmental crimes. But I assume that cost estimates are for the capture and prosecution of the criminals. Unfortunately, the greatest costs to us for environmental crimes arise from crimes that are never prosecuted.

One of the more serious concerns some citizens have about white-collar environmental crimes these days is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been weakened politically in recent years. The EPA is the watchdog of corporations and other government agencies that pollute the air, water, or soils of the nation. Having a strong EPA, one that is not lenient toward corporate polluters, is in the best interest of the U.S. public. White-collar environmental criminals may be well-connected politically and have major financial resources, but they can do us great harm if they are able to skirt the environmental laws, which we should keep as stringent as ever. Let's hope that Stephen L. Johnson, recently nominated by President Bush to head the EPA, will be a strong proponent of strengthening the agency and the laws that protect our air, water, and soil, as well as pursuing corporate offenders.

So what can you do if you suspect an environmental crime of a serious nature? The FBI website ( actually has a "Submit a Tip" link on its homepage that let's anyone put the finger on illegal environmental activities. The email form states that the FBI encourages "the public to submit information regarding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, this form may also be used to report any suspected criminal activity to the FBI." Such criminal activities include environmental white-collar crime, which are also a threat to our nation.

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