A group of environmental investigators in Baton Rouge has been quietly working on high-profile pollution cases.
Last year, the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division office in Baton Rouge led to an $850,000 fine and 21-month prison sentence for a wastewater treatment facility owner in north Louisiana.
In another case last year, Pelican Refinery in Lake Charles was fined $12 million, the largest Clean Air Act criminal fine handed down in Louisiana.
Nevertheless, the public, for the most part, remains unaware of the EPA Criminal Investigation Division.
Brett Spiers, the agent in charge at the Baton Rouge office, said when he talks with community groups, there are always people who tell him: “We had no idea you were here.”
Because the majority of tips the EPA criminal investigation division receives come from the public, Spiers said, he wants more people to know about the office and the work they do.
“Basically, our job is to ask people questions and write it down. Fact gatherers,” Spiers said.
That may be the job at the basic level, but what the agents do is take a complaint, interview employees, ex-employees, review documents and put together information that can be taken to trial.
Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Network, said the EPA criminal investigation division has been a “godsend” to LEAN, a nonprofit advocacy group, and to many communities.
“Environmental compliance takes a village to achieve and in the village must reside a policeman to deter those who knowingly choose to violate our community rules,” Orr said. “Their investigations are thorough, professional, unbiased and conducted by agents who are simply the best of the best.”
Some of the agents have science backgrounds, while others have state and federal law enforcement experience.
Spiers said the U.S. Attorney’s Office in each of three jurisdictions in Louisiana decides whether to take on an environmental case as a criminal matter and whether it’s worth pursuing in court.
“If they take it, it’s a pretty strong case,” he said.
Because of limited money and resources to pursue criminal cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office chooses only those cases that have the best chances in succeeding, Spiers said. There are six investigating agents at the office in Baton Rouge.
Sometimes people think their tips aren’t taken seriously or investigated because agents can’t openly talk about ongoing probes, Spiers said. However, public tips about environmental problems are important to their work, he said. The public can call (225) 925-8490 to leave tips.
“If you do make complaints, we listen,” Spiers said. “You guys are being heard.”
When it rains
The north Louisiana sewage case started with numerous customer complaints to the state about sewage backups at residences, tainted water coming out of the taps, sewage discharges into roadside ditches, and improper termination of residents’ sewage and water services, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Among those affected is Ouachita Parish resident Rhoda Mims, 53.
“It’s every time it rains,” said Mims. “I’ve had toilet paper in my kitchen where it’s come up from pipes under the toilet.”
Sewage backing up into Mims’ home has been a problem for most of the 33 years she’s lived there, and it’s forced some changes in the way she and her family live.
After repeated flooding, the carpet got replaced with linoleum, she boils water from the tap before she drinks it, and when rain threatens, she opens a relief pipe so sewage will flow into the yard rather than her house.
“Everybody asks why do you stay,” she said. “I’ve got 33 years in this house. And we can’t afford anything else.”
Those complaints, and the ensuing investigation, led a federal court jury trial and conviction of J. Jeffrey Pruett, of West Monroe, for violating the Clean Water Act. He was fined $850,000 and sentenced to 21 months in prison.
Pruett was CEO of LWC Management Company Inc. and the principal officer of Louisiana Land & Water Company.
Starting in April 1999, he and the companies provided services to six subdivisions, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The homeowners paid fees for the upkeep and operation of the sewer systems.
Pruett and LLWC were found guilty of six felony violations of failure to maintain and provide records for services to the subdivision. Pruett and LLWC were also found guilty of one felony count of effluent violation and of a misdemeanor/negligent count of failure to provide proper operation and maintenances.
A deterrent effect
Spiers said the CID agents work closely with the state Department of Environmental Quality’s criminal investigation division. Jeff Nolan, criminal investigation division manager at DEQ, said starting in 2008, a DEQ staff member has worked in the EPA’s office.
At first, it was to get real-world training for the staffer but has evolved into having a closer working relationship between the two agencies, he said.
Much of the work DEQ does in terms of inspections, permit reviews and complaint response reports can be used in criminal cases investigated by DEQ and EPA, Nolan said.
The cooperation also helps the civil side of operations — the staff who conduct the routine inspections and permit reviews — because companies see that the agencies are using the information they’re finding.
“There’s a deterrence factor there,” Nolan said.
Although there’s an effort to work with companies to come into compliance, and most cases get settled that way, there are legal methods to enforce compliance as well, he said.
“The people we arrest are just not getting it,” Nolan said.
When the EPA criminal investigation division first gets a tip about potential environmental criminal activity, the agents first determine if an incident is an emergency, Spiers said.
If it’s not an emergency, EPA agents investigate whether the alleged problem is a civil violation, such as a facility lacking a permit to release what it did or releasing more than what the permit allows.
“You have to determine was it an upset, (which is) a one-time event,” he said, or if it’s an ongoing problem.
There are some cases in which the state will authorize an emergency variance of a permit for safety reasons or it could be something that needs to be done to prevent a bigger problem from occurring at the facility, he said.
“In this line of work, you have to do a lot of background work,” Spiers said.
“The vast majority of industry is in compliance,” Spiers said. However, when industry isn’t doing the right thing, it’s usually about money, he added.
“As we say, this is the original green crime,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of it was they were trying to save money.”
EPA agents also look into whether the problems stem from a “lone ranger” individual or from a larger corporate culture.
The $12 million Pelican Refinery fine handed down last year was the result of environmental neglect at the Lake Charles facility.
“The inspectors in the state said this was the worst they’ve ever seen,” Spiers said. “There was no environmental department, no environmental training. Just multiple violations.”
The case started when violations were found during a March 2006 inspection of the facility by the state DEQ and EPA, according to EPA.
Key pollution prevention equipment was either not working, poorly maintained, not installed correctly, not used or not calibrated correctly, according to a document jointly filed by the Department of Justice and Pelican Refining Co. in the U.S. District Court Western District of Louisiana in Lake Charles.
In addition, the facility had no procedure to record, track, report or mitigate hydrogen sulfide releases, which is a toxic flammable gas that was produced by the refining.
Hydrogen sulfide is classified as a “extremely hazardous substance.” At high levels of exposure, the chemical can paralyze the sense of smell, and at higher levels “it paralyzes the respiratory center of the brain so that the exposed individual stops breathing, and loses consciousness and dies unless removed from exposure and resuscitated,” according to the joint statement.
The Pelican case was one of many that has kept agents busy, especially with the concentration of petrochemical facilities in Louisiana, Spiers said. Although he wouldn’t comment about how many people are on staff at the EPA criminal investigation division, it’s a relatively small staff, he said.
“This office is the busiest in the country for CID,” he said. “The tempo is very high.”