Washington County (MN) Attorney Targets Environmental Crimes
October 31, 2012 The Washington County Attorneys Office announced earlier in October 2012 that it was dedicating a team of attorneys to prosecute environmental crime. Two criminal prosecutors will coordinate efforts with a civil prosecutor from the County Attorney’s Office to investigate and charge environmental crimes cases. The team will work closely with Washington County’s Public Health and Environment Department which implements county ordinances relating to the proper handling of solid and hazardous wastes.
The formation of an environmental crimes team in the Twin Cities metropolitan area is noteworthy because, as has been reported in this blog, the State of Minnesota and particularly the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) appears to be backing away form civil and administrative efforts to enforce environmental laws. See “EnviroTrend: MPCA Backs Away From Enforcement” http://www.enviroattorney.net/blog/?post=180.
According to a recent report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Washington County team will investigate violations such as generating hazardous waste without a license, operating environment-related businesses without licenses and illegal dumping of computers. http://www.startribune.com/local/east/172568891.html Officials from the Washington County Attorney’s Office and Washington County’s Public Health and Environmental Department were contacted, but did not provide any comment on the formation of the new environmental crimes team.
Washington County is authorized to license businesses that generate hazardous waste. County inspectors conduct regular inspections of these businesses to monitor compliance. Washington County is authorized to assess fees to businesses that generate hazardous waste In Minnesota, violations of regulations may be prosecuted as misdemeanors punishable with a sentence of not more than 90 days or a fine of not more than $1,000 or both may be imposed. In 1987 the Minnesota Legislature codified certain acts, including the illegal disposal of hazardous waste, as gross misdemeanor and/or felony level crimes. These crimes are found in Minnesota Statutes Section 609.671. Upon conviction a defendant may face more serious financial penalties ($10,000 to $50,000) and imprisonment for a year or more. A defendant who is convicted of “knowing endangerment” may face fines of up to $100,000 for an individual and up to $1,000,000 for an organization. For more information on environmental crimes https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=609.671.
In Minnesota, Hennepin County, the state’s most populous county, has prosecuted numerous cases as environmental crimes. Over time other metropolitan counties have had a less significant role in prosecuting criminal cases. In the 1990s the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office under Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey launched a state environmental crimes team which has since been disbanded. For the past 15 years the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis has been very active in investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes under federal environmental laws. The U.S. Department of Justice has assigned prosecutors and criminal investigators to investigate environmental crimes that many warrant federal prosecution. the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted several dozen environmnetal crimes cases.
What are the implications for businesses in Washington County and across the State of of Minnesota?
Although state enforcement and inspections may be trending down in Minnesota, county inspectors remain active. The primary means of enforcement at the County level is through criminal prosecutions either as misdemeanors or, in the more serious cases, as gross misdemeanors or felonies. In addition, due to reductions in state finding and enforcement capacity the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is stepping up its activities in Minnesota and in surrounding states.
Given the risk of fines and, in the case of criminal charges also the possibility of incarceration, business owners and managers who are subject to environmental regulation should take proactive measures to maintain compliance. Environmental law attorney Joseph Maternowski is involved with all aspects of permitting and enforcement matters including the auditing of business operations and practices under attorney client privilege.
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