Companies that endanger their workers could be prosecuted for environmental crimes

biohazard-level-4-by-simon-strandgaard-853x1024Since penalties for violating workplace standards are so weak, the U.S. Department of Justice now is urging federal prosecutors, in some cases, to charge companies with environmental crimes.

The National Law Review posted a story Monday explaining the rationale for the change in strategy:

…. violations of OSHA requirements were punishable only as misdemeanor, while violations of many environmental requirements were punishable as felonies.

Here are some possible scenarios:

  • In 2009, an explosion occurred at the Con Agra plant in Garner. Workers were injured or killed as a result of safety violations, but chemicals were also illegally released into the air. Con Agra paid $104,000 in state fines for labor violations, but if that explosion happened today, it could be charged with environmental crimes for the ammonia releases under the Clean Air Act.
  • A crop duster negligently sprays farmworkers with pesticides. The farmworkers become ill, but the pesticide drift also contaminates streams, a violation of the Clean Water Act, or kills nearby crops or bees, which could fall under air regulations.

In 2016, the maximum OSHA fine for a repeat offender is $126,000 per violation. For “serious” violations, the maximum is $12,000 for each. By comparison, environmental criminal penalties can run into the millions of dollars. Duke Energy, for example, was fined $102 million by the EPA for Clean Water Act violations stemming from coal ash pollution into four major rivers in North Carolina.

Last month, this new federal initiative was applied in the case of four Texas companies responsible for a 2011 explosion at a chemical and petroleum processing facility in Port Arthur. One worker died; two more were severely injured. But the companies plead guilty to criminal crimes and paid $3.5 million for violating the Clean Air Act.

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