by Whit Gibbons

January 29, 2012

Want to have cancer-causing, bird-killing DDT sprayed in your neighborhood? How about having high levels of brain-damaging mercury dumped into your favorite fishing spot? What about paper mill wastes clogging up rivers and fouling the air people breathe? These health hazards were once commonplace in communities throughout our country. That they are no longer the hazards they once were is due in no small part to the Environmental Protection Agency, which protects us from these and other environmental abuses. Without EPA oversight, the United States would be a much less healthy place to live.

Those who believe we do not need federal regulation of activities that can turn the country into a toxic waste dump are likely unaware of the far-reaching environmental and human health consequences of such actions. They may also not want to accept the fact that some individuals and many corporations will put profit ahead of all other considerations--including the health and well-being of the general populace.

Ironically, most of us readily notice a roadside 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 or coal fly ash 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, water, and soil does far more harm to the environment and public health than littering does. Some of the more zealous environmentalists show utter disdain for anyone who doesn't recycle household items. Yet they give little notice to improper disposal of waste by corporate and even government entities. White-collar environmental crimes cost us much more in the long term than the more obvious personal assaults on the environment such as littering or failing to recycle.

Exactly what is a white-collar environmental crime? The term "white-collar crime" was coined 72 years ago by criminologist Edwin Sutherland, who defined it as a crime 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 the difficulty in gathering evidence and the complexities of interpreting and enforcing the law. As with many illegal activities, political influence and money can help protect the most serious abuses while minor offenses are easily singled out and dealt with expeditiously.

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."

Many people are concerned about attempts to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is the watchdog of corporations and government agencies that pollute our nation's air, water, or soil. Having a strong, adequately funded EPA, one that vigorously enforces the law and is not lenient toward corporate polluters, is in the best interest of all of us. Some businesses that profit from such pollution use political rhetoric to try to convince people that "regulation costs jobs." Nonsense. Proper regulation does not cost jobs. Proper regulation creates jobs while ensuring a clean and healthy environment for everyone.

When politically well-connected, well-financed white-collar environmental criminals are able to skirt the environmental laws, we the people suffer. We need stringent enforcement of our environmental laws, which means having a strong EPA. I have a suggestion for those who support weakening the EPA or think federal environmental regulation is unnecessary: take a look at what happened to the air, water, and soil in this country when it was every company for itself.

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