Basic Information on Enforcement
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Enforcing environmental laws is a central part of EPA's Strategic Plan to protect human health and the environment. EPA works to ensure compliance with environmental requirements. When warranted, EPA will take civil or criminal enforcement action against violators of environmental laws. Learn more about our enforcement goals.
One of EPA's top priorities is to protect communities disproportionately affected by pollution through our environmental justice (EJ) work. EPA is integrating EJ into areas such as:
- enforcement and compliance program planning and implementation,
- identifying cases to pursue and
- developing solutions to benefit overburdened communities.
Learn more about the Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda
This section provides basic information on EPA’s enforcement and compliance programs, actions, activities, reports and data.
Many of the nation’s environmental statutes contain both civil and criminal revisions to address pollution violations.
- What is the difference between Criminal and Civil Enforcement?
Criminal and civil enforcement differ in:
- Environmental civil liability is strict; it arises simply through the existence of the environmental violation. It does not take into consideration what the responsible party knew about the law or regulation they violated.
- Environmental criminal liability is triggered through some level of intent.
As a result of this distinction, most of the environmental crimes that EPA investigates involve "knowing violations" of the law. These are classified as felonies in all the federal environmental statutes except for the toxic substances and pesticide statutes.
In a "knowing violation" the person or company is aware of the facts that create the violation. A conscious and informed action brought about the violation. In contrast, a civil violation may be caused by an accident or mistake.
Examples of “knowing violations” include an intentional decision to dispose or dump pollutants into a river without a permit, or to not install a required air pollution control device.
Burden of Proof
To be found civilly liable for violating environmental laws the standard of proof is based upon "the preponderance of the evidence." This means that the evidence presented is convincing and more likely to be true than not true. Effectively, the standard is satisfied if there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the evidence is true.
The defendant in a civil suit can either be found liable, following a trial, or reach a mutually agreed-upon settlement with the government. The defendant is then required to meet all of the terms of the settlement, but does not have to acknowledge that he violated the law.
Criminal guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is a higher or stricter standard than the civil liability standard. When a criminal defendant pleads guilty or is convicted by a jury, there is no question of legal wrongdoing. He has legally committed the crime.
In criminal prosecutions, a person can be sentenced to prison. It is the possibility of imprisonment that most distinguishes criminal law from civil law.
If a civil defendant is found liable or agrees to a settlement, the result can be:
- a monetary penalty
- injunctive relief (actions required to correct the violation and come into compliance, e.g., install pollution control equipment), and/or
- additional actions taken to improve the environment
If a criminal defendant is convicted or pleads guilty, the result can be:
- a monetary fine paid to the U.S. Treasury, and / or
- restitution (reimbursing the government for the cost of cleanup or response, compensating for the harm caused by the violation, e.g., paying for medical testing for people exposed to asbestos)
Cleanup enforcement gets property cleaned up by:
- finding the companies or persons responsible for the contamination
- negotiating with them to perform the clean up themselves, or
- ordering them to perform the clean up, or
- to have them pay for the clean up performed by another party or EPA.
Federal facilities enforcement ensures federal facilities comply with environmental regulations and statutes.
Types of Enforcement Actions
Civil Administrative Actions are non-judicial enforcement actions taken by EPA or a state under its own authority. These actions do not involve a judicial court process. An administrative action by EPA or a state agency may be in the form of:
- a notice of violation or a Superfund notice letter, or
- an order (either with or without penalties) directing an individual, a business, or other entity to take action to come into compliance, or to clean up a site.
Civil Judicial Actions are formal lawsuits. They are filed in court, against persons or entities that have failed to:
- comply with statutory or regulatory requirements,
- comply with an administrative order,
- pay EPA the costs for cleaning up a Superfund site or commit to doing the cleanup work.
These cases are filed by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of EPA. In civil cases they are typically filed by the State's Attorneys General on behalf of the states. Learn more about Civil Cases and Settlement.
Criminal Actions can occur when EPA or a state enforce against a company or person through a criminal action. Criminal actions are usually reserved for the most serious violations, those that are willful, or knowingly committed. A court conviction can result in fines or imprisonment.
Types of Enforcement Results
- Settlements are generally agreed-upon resolutions to an enforcement case.
- Settlements in administrative actions are often in the form of consent agreements/final orders (CA/FOs) or administrative orders on consent (AOCs).
- Settlements in judicial actions are in the form of consent decrees signed by all parties to the action and filed in the appropriate court.
- Civil Penalties are monetary assessments paid by a person or regulated entity due to a violation or noncompliance. Penalties act as an incentive for coming into compliance and staying in compliance with the environmental statutes and regulations. Penalties are designed to recover the economic benefit of noncompliance and to compensate for the seriousness of the violation.
- Injunctive Relief requires a regulated entity to perform, or refrain from performing, some designated action. It also brings the entity into compliance with environmental laws. Mitigation is additional injunctive relief to reduce or offset harm caused by past or ongoing violations. Learn more about Mitigation
- Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) can be part of an enforcement settlement. SEPs are environmental improvement projects that a violator voluntarily agrees to perform. These projects are in addition to actions required to correct the violations specified in the settlement. Learn more about SEPs.
- Criminal Penalties are federal, state or local fines imposed by a Judge at the sentencing. In addition to criminal penalties, the defendant may be ordered to pay restitution to those affected by the violation. For example, a defendant may be ordered to pay a local fire department the cost of responding to and containing a hazardous waste spill.
- Incarceration refers to “prison time” for an individual defendant.
Enforcement Reports and Data
- Annual Enforcement Results, for the previous fiscal year, are published yearly to show the results of EPA's enforcement activities.
- Enforcement and Compliance Data is the information that EPA uses to manage and assess performance of its enforcement and compliance assurance program. This information is stored in several national data systems. These systems support specific environmental statutes. In general, EPA regions and states input data into the systems.
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