Let’s Get Serious About Punishing Polluters

Let’s Get Serious About Punishing Polluters

We recently read with interest a story about a series of fines levied by the EPA against an industrial company that was caught dumping toxic waste into a major river on the East coast of the United States. At first we applauded the enforcement efforts and the penalties that were assessed, until we looked a little deeper into who was being punished and why.

As it turns out, the guilty party had a long and sordid history of this type of behavior. While they have been fined a few times before, there are also numerous allegations brought against them from local fishermen and other residents who have noticed a dramatic decline in the aquatic ecosystem surrounding the factory in question. From all accounts, it looks as though this corporation has been cited for roughly 1 in 20 violations that they were involved in.

Those times they were penalized, to the tune of roughly $100,000, the dollar amount of their fine looks pretty substantial to the average citizen. What most people don’t realize is that the $100,000 the company paid to get rid of their waste illegally was substantially cheaper than the $500,000 it would have cost them to dispose of it properly. Someone within this company decided that they would rather get a few days of bad publicity and pay an insignificant fine than to follow the law by doing the right thing.

How did we get here?

How is it that corporations, who enjoy all the benefits that individual citizens do in this country, have become so irresponsible? Granted there are plenty of good guys out there doing things right. Unfortunately, however, more and more polluters look at the cost of breaking the law as just another business expense, one to be managed and dealt with like any other.  

Something is wrong with a system that has made it less expensive, both in dollars and in the public eye, to harm the planet. Unless policies change, as corporations get bigger and bigger there is no incentive for them to change their ways. As much as we would like to rely on the honor of those occupying board rooms, the current state of affairs makes it clear that too often honor takes a back seat to profitability.

Since the decision to pollute or not usually comes down to dollars, dollars are where any reforms have to begin.

1 – We encourage everyone to contact their legislators and demand changes be made to the enforcement provisions available to the EPA and other regulatory agencies. To start, the fine for any actions leading to pollution entering the ecosystem should be, at a minimum, twice the cost of doing things the right way. In other words, if it costs $500,000 to clean things up properly the penalty for doing it improperly should be $1,000,000.

2- Introduce shame as an enforcement penalty. Instead of sweeping things under the rug with fancy press releases, companies found guilty of willful violation of the law should be required to pay for a full page display in the largest local newspapers, both print and online editions, within 100 miles of where the violation occurred, and within 100 miles of corporate headquarters, explaining what happened and how the company played a part in event. The drafting of this release should be prepared and coordinated by local regulatory agencies and NOT by the offending party.

3 – In an effort to promote positive behavior, offenders that do change their ways should have an equal opportunity, after a specified period of at least 24 months to have their efforts recognized in public with as much fanfare as their violations received. The cost of publishing such a “Good Citizens List” should NOT be assessed to the one time offender, but rather should be a cost borne by recent offenders.  

4 – In keeping with the idea of full disclosure, the names of all individuals found guilty of involvement should also be prominently published in the newspapers within 100 miles of where the offence was committed, and in the local paper, if different, where they live. The idea that your friends and neighbors might learn of your bad behavior is a strong incentive from committing it in the first place. Guilty individuals should be required to pay for all publishing costs either voluntarily or through garnishment.

5 – Introduce provisions to automatically mandate higher insurance premiums for offending parties. Parties found guilty of violations should be forced to pay premiums for at least one year that are at a minimum twice those required by law abiding customers.

6 – Like most aspects of corporate management, offending parties should be required to adopt internal policies that spell out how the company will manage to avoid pollution problems in the future. Citizens committees and regulatory agencies should be allowed to review these plans at least once a year and publish a “grade” or some such measure of performance on a public website.

While these ideas are clearly directed at high profile corporate polluters, there is no reason why similar measures should not be adopted against individuals as well. Until pollution enforcement really hurts the offender, there is no reason to expect society as a whole to change.

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