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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Congress: Did Bush Administration Go Easy on Polluters?

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Legal Times reporter Linda Himelstein about charges that the Bush administration's Justice Department let some large polluters off too lightly. Three separate Congressional committees are investigating the charges, including allegations that Justice was too eager to strike a plea bargain over pollution at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado.


CURWOOD: As the Clinton Administration continues to take shape, one challenge it will face will be resolving the controversy surrounding the Justice Department's handling of environmental crimes. The department's Environmental Crimes section is being investigated by several Congressional committees for allegedly going easy on some environmental criminals and letting others off the hook altogether. The most famous of these cases is that of pollution at the nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats, outside of Denver, where prosecutors are alleged to have mishandled the case against defense contractor Rockwell International. But there have been a number of other cases that span the range of environmental law, from hazardous waste to clean water and wetlands. To help us understand this controversy, we're joined now by Legal Times senior reporter Linda Himmelstein, who's been writing about these cases since May. Linda, what is it that Congress is looking for?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, there are three separate Congressional inquiries which are basically trying to find out if there is a pattern of behavior over at the Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes section, and that pattern would be the Justice Department not forcefully prosecuting polluters, whether they are treating large corporations differently than small-time "mom and pop" shops, whether they are treating influential people with corporate ties differently than they are other individuals who don't have the access to the Justice Department that large corporations would. And these three Congressional committees separately have concluded there is some kind of a pattern here, and that the Justice Department is not applying environmental laws in the manner that they should be.

CURWOOD: Can you give us a brief example here of a case that Congress is looking at?

HIMMELSTEIN: I think one of the worst cases involves a company called Pure-Gro, which is a pesticide manufacturer, and it involves a case in the state of Washington. The company was charged in the state's first "knowing endangerment" case, which means the company knew that when it released some hazardous materials in a field, that it could have harmed the people living in the area. And in fact what happened was 23 people became sick and one person later died. The Justice Department, over the objections of state prosecutors, agents from the Environmental Protection Agency and its own line attorneys, accepted a misdemeanor plea and a very minimal fine from the company instead of trying to prosecute the company and individuals who may have known about this, more vigorously.

CURWOOD: Now, I want to ask you about one of these most controversial cases, and that's the one involving Rocky Flats. Rockwell International made nuclear bomb triggers for the government there outside of Denver. Why is this case so controversial?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, one reason is that the grand jury that was empaneled to hear the evidence against Rockwell has gone public with its allegations that it believes Rockwell did more than the government was willing to charge them with, that individuals should have been held accountable, at both Rockwell and at the Department of Energy, which oversees the nuclear weapons facilities, for environmental violations. A lot of people believe that the environmental damage that took place at Rocky Flats will be around for many years to come, and that the Department of Justice, instead of treating this as an incredibly egregious violation, accepted a plea, $18.5 million dollars, from the corporation, and agreed not to indict any individuals, and agreed not to pursue any further cases against the company.

CURWOOD: Now what does the Justice Department itself say to these allegations? That's pretty serious, saying that , hey, you guys won't enforce crimes that are on the books.

HIMMELSTEIN: It is very serious. Part of what they say is that they've been treated unfairly in the media and by Congress, because gee, you know, these are a handful of cases you're complaining about and if you look at our record overall, there's no way you can conclude that we're not tough on pollution. And they also would say that because of the newness of environmental law, they need to keep track of cases. They want to be sure that a Clean Air Act in Seattle is treated the same way a Clean Air Act violation would be treated in Atlanta. And that's not unusual, the Justice Department has done that in many other areas of the law, especially while they're developing areas of the law.

CURWOOD: How far back do these problems that the Congressional investigators are looking at go?

HIMMELSTEIN: Most of the cases they're looking at really have to do with the Bush Administration's record. And part of that is just because this has been an era in which more of the environmental laws have been applied in a criminal manner. The law is still developing, and it's only been a little over a dozen years that the Department of Justice has even had an Environmental Crimes section. So you can't exactly go back to the Carter years and say, gee, during a Democratic administration things were a lot better.

CURWOOD: Well, let's talk about the Democrats, they're in now. How are the folks on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Clinton Administration, handling this problem?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, it's interesting. Certainly during the campaign, the Clinton Administration was made aware of the problems at the Environmental Crimes section, of the complaints that the EPA agents had been having and of the problems the US attorneys had raised. Vice President Gore during the campaign talked somewhat about Rocky Flats, and said, you know, we are really going to take a look at this and be serious about this. So it's on the radar screen for the Clinton Administration; we're just going to have to see what happens once the Justice Department really is fully operative, which of course it isn't yet.

CURWOOD: Linda Himmelstein is a senior reporter with the Legal Times. She talked to us from Washington. Thanks for joining us.




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