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EPA special agents: Taking a bite out of eco-crime

Published August 14, 2011 10:15 am

Those in the Salt Lake City branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency make it their business to dig up the dirt on polluters.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Linda Mount suspected something was amiss because of the nasty smoke belching from the pipe factory near her office. Its solvent smell gave her headaches and made her eyes sting and water.

But when she called state regulators to complain, they told her that records showed the Springville plant met pollution limits. She was skeptical.

"There was no way they ought to be releasing fumes like this and that it would be legal."

Her co-worker Keith Wilson questioned the pollution, too. He lived a few miles from the pipe plant and sometimes found a thick black dust covering his new white fence.

"A couple of times it smelled so bad," he said, "I would have to send my family into the house."

Like Mount, Wilson got no help from authorities.

Not until he got a call from Ted Owens, a Salt Lake City-based special agent for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency whose investigation would eventually contribute to one of the biggest environmental prosecutions in U.S. history.

That was 2003, Owens' first full year on the job. And since then, often joined by local authorities or other law enforcement officers, he has taken on a string of eco-crimes — from toxic-waste dumping to shoddy asbestos removal to doctoring of pollution records. Most recently, his work led to grand jury indictments against a Bountiful company that allegedly misused a deadly pesticide blamed for the deaths of two Layton girls, Rebecca, 4, and Rachel Toone, 15 months.

"We don't just have jobs," Owens says.

"We have missions that we're on to promote justice and to promote environmental compliance and to make sure our air is clean to breathe and our water is clean to drink and our soil is safe to grow things in and to play in for kids. It's a big deal."

Owens notes that the nation's current system of environmental enforcement relies heavily on a kind of honor code, in which industry reports on its pollution levels and even its violations. But that doesn't always work.

And that's where the EPA's criminal enforcement division comes in. The little-known branch of EPA investigates crimes, gathers evidence and nabs environmental outlaws.

Owens and his colleagues also say their work deters polluters. He cites an Abraham Lincoln quote: "Law without enforcement is just good advice."

Perhaps that was what prompted Congress and the Republican presidents who created the nation's big environmental laws four decades ago — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act cradle-to-grave hazardous waste law — to include criminal provisions in all of them. The criminal provisions expand beyond the normal menu of white-collar crimes like fraud or conspiracy, which also can be used to prosecute environmental outlaws.

An assistant U.S. attorney for Utah who prosecutes many environmental cases, Jared Bennett says that enforcing environmental laws separates the United States from the rest of the world, where there are rarely consequences for poisoning the water, land or air. In his view, pouring dangerous chemicals into the sewers or pumping toxic pollutants into the air exposes hundreds or thousands of people to unnecessary risks the same way bank robbers and drunken drivers threaten public safety.

"If this stuff gets out of hand, we're all in trouble," says Bennett. "That's what these agents do: Protect people."

The way Salt Lake City lawyer Steve Owens tells it, his brother Ted was born for the work, given his love for the natural world and a deep sense of compassion and justice.

As a kid, he pored over his Ranger Rick's Nature Magazine. "He'd study it like he was taking a test," says the older brother.

The Owenses credit their father, the late congressman and wilderness champion Wayne Owens, for their love of the outdoors.

"It is how we were raised — hiking in Zion [National Park], fishing at Panguitch Lake, hunting deer without bullets, just walking around," said Steve Owens. "It certainly rubbed off."

Named after his father's friend, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, Ted Owens worked a few years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on endangered species. While attending night school in public administration at the University of Utah, he met Ken Farnsworth, a former Salt Lake City cop who'd worked on the Mark Hofmann murder case and later became an environmental investigator for the state.

Through Farnsworth, Owens met the EPA's two special agents in Salt Lake City and put in his résumé to join them.

"They hired some 30-plus agents after 9/11," Owens said, "and I was in that hire."

Last month, Owens started a new job at EPA headquarters in Washington as the agency's first transnational desk officer, a kind of U.S. liaison for the world's international environmental-crime fighters. He is one of the 200 EPA special agents nationwide, a detective force backed by about 150 scientists and support staff.

Fighting eco-crime turns out to be a lot like fighting any other crime.

EPA special agents are trained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at a converted military base in Georgia, where recruits from more than 80 federal agencies learn during the 10-week course such things as what it takes to obtain a search warrant, how to interview witnesses and what activities rise to the level of criminal activity. Trainees are also instructed on using firearms. Plus, the EPA agents get specialized training on, for instance, what kinds of tests are needed to detect contaminants in the water and how to identify toxic-chemical dumping.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't have this and everybody would try to comply," said Owens. "We would only have accidents, and we would deal with those in a civil manner, maybe fines."

But sometimes it is clear someone has decided to break the law. EPA's special agents might be tipped off by, among other sources, a concerned citizen, an agency that has seen unexplained pollution spikes or a call to the EPA's polluter hotline.

"For our criminal cases, we like proof, evidence that the person in charge knew what was going on and made a decision," said Owens. "It usually boils down to money."

Sometimes a company can get an edge over law-abiding competitors by refusing to install equipment necessary to keep pollution within limits. In the case of the pipe company, the manager was not only trying to avoid the multimillion dollar cost of emissions scrubbers but also the production slowdown that would cut into his bonus.

In another case, the offending company dumped portable-toilet waste into the Spanish Fork River, a violation of the Clean Water Act, to dodge the $40 disposal fee for the Porta Potty.

And, while some environmental offenders might have a criminal history, many would fall under the category of white-collar criminals, who are otherwise law-abiding.

That explains why in the history of the EPA criminal enforcement program, only once did special agents fire on a suspect.

The case involved Utah fugitive Larkin Baggett, who fled the state rather than stand trial in June 2008 for dumping truck-washing acids into local sewers north of Salt Lake City. A grand jury indicted him after Owens had helped trace pollution problems at the local sewer plant to Baggett's business.

But Owens, the target of Baggett's threat to "take out everyone at EPA," was not on hand in the Florida Keys two years ago when the fugitive burst from a travel trailer pointing a semi-automatic rifle at EPA and local officers. Baggett suffered gunshot wounds in the face and torso, putting him in intensive care for weeks before he pleaded guilty to the environmental crimes and the assault on officers.

Owens called the case — which ended with a 20-year prison sentence for Baggett, now on appeal — "bread and butter" environmental criminal work. But he adds: "I take no pleasure in what happened to Larkin."

David Uhlmann, who spent 17 years prosecuting environmental crimes for the U.S. Justice Department, said the enforcement program has "a remarkable record of accomplishment." It has helped level the playing field for business and protect the public from pollution, he says.

"We don't live in a perfect world, and there's always going to be companies that cut corners to save money or that don't think the law applies to them," Uhlmann said. Enforcement, he said, "changes behavior."

That's important for anyone with the outdated notion that polluting just isn't a crime, Uhlmann said.

"Our children do not struggle with the idea that pollution is wrong," he said. "Our children recognize that we have a solemn obligation to preserve the environment for our generation and future generations and for other forms of life."

Uhlmann led the prosecution of Alabama-based McWane Inc., the parent company of the Pacific States Pipe plant in Springville, which Wilson and Mount had complained about.

Owens' work would later show that plant managers had doctored a pollution test that made it impossible for state regulators to learn that its stacks were pumping poison into Utah County's air for years. Pacific States agreed to a $3 million fine — the largest environmental fine in Utah history. For his role, executive Charles Matlock was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison.

Meanwhile, the air in Springville has improved, Wilson and Mount say.

"The laws are in place to protect us," said Wilson, recalling once again how bad the pollution was before the EPA's prosecution. "I'm glad they did something about it."

fahys@sltrib.com

By the numbers: EPA enforcement 2010

Environmental crime cases opened • 346

Criminal defendants charged • 289

Pending cases resulting in convictions • 198

Fines and restitution assessed • $41 million

Court-ordered environmental projects • $18 million

Incarceration ordered • 72 years, plus 22 years for nonenvironmental crimes

Commitments to address pollution of land, air and water • 1.4 billion pounds avoided

Hazardous-waste cleanup or disposal arranged • 11.8 billion pounds

Water-pollution cleanup commitments • $8 billion

Value of agreements for pollution controls • $12 billion

Polluter penalties • More than $110 million

Source: EPA

Eco-crime tipsters

EPA cops get tips about environmental crimes from a variety of sources, including government agencies, concerned citizens and employees who have been part of a crime. About 20 percent of tips wind up becoming cases. Some tips are funneled to the 40 EPA law-enforcement bureaus nationwide from an agency hotline: http://www.epa.gov/compliance/complaints/index.html. ­­—

Enforcement: High-profile cases in Utah

Larkin Baggett

A federal grand jury indicted this Cottonwood Heights man on charges related to dumping highly caustic and hazardous chemicals into the drains at his Chemical Consultants business in north Salt Lake City and outside in storm drains, on gravel and on pavement between October 2004 and April 2005. The dumping caused the South Davis Sewer District to violate environmental standards 22 times. Baggett was charged with additional crimes after being wounded in a shootout with EPA agents in Florida. Incarcerated in the low-security prison in Fort Worth, Texas, he is appealing his conviction and 20-year sentence.

Pacific States Cast Iron Pipe

A Springville pipe company and two of its executives were indicted in 2005 on a charge of tampering with pollution tests. Part of a yearslong, nationwide prosecution of companies owned by Pacific States' parent company, Alabama-based McWane Inc., the case arose when the company misled regulators by using clean-burning raw materials the day of its pollution test instead of the usual high-pollution inputs. The case was part of a 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles in The New York Times and a PBS documentary "Dangerous Business," which chronicled health and safety violations at McWane facilities.

EPA fined Pacific States $3 million, the largest fine for an environmental crime in Utah history. Charles Matlock, the onetime general manager of Pacific States and McWane vice president, was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and was ordered to pay a fine of $20,000.

Bugman Pest and Lawn Inc.

The Bountiful extermination company and two of its staff have been charged with misusing a pesticide, a federal violation. A former company employee charged in the case, Coleman Nocks, was previously accused in state court of two counts of negligent homicide in connection with the deaths of a Layton girl, 4-year-old Rebecca Toone, and her 15-month-old sister, Rachel, in February 2010 after Nocks used an aluminum phosphide pesticide called Fumitoxin to eliminate field mice. The state case was dropped when federal authorities took it over and charged the company, Nocks and another employee with pesticide violations related to the Toone case and others involving Fumitoxin. The case is set for trial in October.