Times Standard top front 11/30/98
North Coast crimes unpunished
Northern California last in environmental charges
By Martha Mendoza
The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO - Every year the federal government sends people to
jail for damaging the environment - everywhere but in Northern
California, where for years federal prosecutors have declined to file
criminal charges in almost every case.
The U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco, responsible for enforcing
federal law from the once-pristine redwood forests at the Oregon border
the protected waters of the Monterey Bay, ranks last in the country for
prosecuting environmental crimes.
Instead, an Associated Press review of Justice Department computer
records has found that the office used its discretion to focus on drugs,
immigration and white collar crime, exasperating federal pollution cops
who have watched their efforts go nowhere.
ăThis has been a source of frustration, and we never got used to it. It
like being a bump on a log," said Dave Wilma, the EPA's special agent in
charge in San Francisco between 1984 and 1997.
"We brought a number of cases that we worked for a long time that never
went anywhere," said Wilma, now with the EPA in Seattle. "I can't tell
how many times we would go to the prosecutors and guess what? They're
involved in a dope trial for the next six weeks."
Only 12.5 percent of the environmental cases referred to the region's
federal prosecutors over the last seven years have resulted in criminal
charges, and not one polluter has gone to jail, according to the
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse in Washington D.C.
That's well below the national average of 41 percent, according to
TRAC, which has processed Justice Department data since 1992.
It's not because Northern California lacks environmental crimes.
ăThere's theft of timber from federal lands, intentional violations of
Clean Water Act, logging on endangered lands and more," said Nathaniel
Lawrence, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources and Defense Council
in San Francisco.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, the Coast Guard and other
agencies routinely bring
evidence of crimes to the U.S. Attorney's office. San Francisco-based
environmental groups, from the mainstream Sierra Club to the militant
Earth First!, also clamor to put polluters behind bars.
But federal prosecutors turned away 28 out of 32 environmental
cases in Northern California since 1992, including trucking compa-
nies dumping sewage in San Francisco Bay, pulp mills pumping
waste into the Pacific and nuclear power plants cooking their
The four cases U.S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi decided to pursue, all
related to dumping waste into the Pacific Ocean, resulted in fines and
convictions on lesser charges in 1994.
In contrast, California's other three U.S. attorneys have pursued
about half their environmental crime referrals in court. And
Southern Florida, where the Everglades suffer from development and
fragile coral reefs have been harmed by polluters, prosecutors have led
nation, pursuing more than 25 environmental crime cases a year in the
three years alone. That's more than half the cases referred to them.
Before he was replaced by U.S. attorney Robert Mueller in September,
Yamaguchi suffered a high turnover of prosecutors, filed a declining
number of charges overall and encountered problems in some major cases.
He has not returned to legal practice and did not return calls from the
Mueller doesn't dispute the poor record, and said one of his top
priorities is to begin enforcing federal environmental crime laws.
While Yamaguchi had no one in his office dedicated to criminal
environmental cases, Mueller has brought in prosecutor Herb
Johnson from Washington, D.C., to focus exclusively in this area.
"Corporations and individuals in this region need to realize that if
they break the laws or lie about discharges or other violations they
will be prosecuted," Mueller said.
Environmental activists hope he follows through.
ăThere is plenty of work to be done pursuing criminal violations of
>the nationâs environmental laws in Northern California,ä said
Activist Susan Stansbury, executive director of Bay Area Action in
Palo Alto, has spent the past decade trying to get federal
prosecutors to file charges against lumber companies harvesting
ancient redwoods in Northern California, to no avail. State
regulators and environmental activists have been forced to pursue
civil cases instead.
ăBut these are crimes,ä said Stansbury. ăIt is devastating for the
environment when the laws arenât enforced.
The dearth of federal criminal prosecutions doesnât mean there
hasnât been any environmental enforcement in Northern California.
Federal regulators have monitored, investigated and fined polluters.
State prosecutors have put some behind bars. And the U.S. Attorney
has brought civil, rather than criminal, charges against
individuals and corporations, enforced with fines and new
Nationally, the Justice Department prosecutes about 380 people and a
for allegedly violating environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act
the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Laurie Dueker, the head of EPA enforcement for California,
Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona, said her agents became so
discouraged by the lack of action in Northern California that they
gave up trying with the U.S. Attorney's office. Recently, however,
she got a call from Johnson urging her to bring him some work.
"Historically, we got so used to being turned down in San Francisco that
we just turned to other areas," she said. "Now we hear they're changing
their attitude, and we're ready to work with them."
Coast Guard investigators know where they can start: A 2,300-gallon oil
spill just outside San Francisco Bay on Sept. 27 that killed more than
seabirds and smeared miles of San Mateo County beaches with tar balls.
Coast Guard investigators tracked the oil to a Liberian registered
and boarded the ship off Central America.
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