Conference to discuss 30 years of environmental crimes prosecution

By Amy Spooner
U-M Law

In the 30-year history of the environmental crimes section at the U.S. Department of Justice, eight attorneys have served as the section’s chief. During the upcoming Environmental Conference at the University of Michigan Law School, which is titled “Environmental Criminal Enforcement,” all eight will appear together for the first time to discuss their work, during the conference’s opening keynote session.

The conference will be held March 30–31, in the Law School’s South Hall. Sponsors of the sixth Environmental Conference are the Environmental Law and Policy Program, the Environmental Law Society, and the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law.

The keynote, “30 Years of Environmental Crimes Prosecution at the U.S. Department of Justice—A Panel Discussion with the Chiefs of the Environmental Crimes Section from 1987–2017,” will take place the afternoon of March 30. It features the current chief, Deborah Harris, as well as former chiefs Jud Starr (1987–1989), Jerry Block (1989–1991), Neil Cartusciello (1991–1994), Ron Sarachan (1994–1997), Steve Solow (1997–2000), David Uhlmann (2000–2007), and Stacey Mitchell (2007–2014). Their discussion will provide an overview of criminal enforcement under the environmental laws—from the Exxon Valdez, Colonial Pipeline, and Koch Petroleum to the Gulf oil spill, Volkswagen, and Lumber Liquidators, along with hundreds of other cases prosecuted over the last 30 years.
“This is the most consequential time for environmental protection efforts since the 1970s,” said David M. Uhlmann, who is a former chief of the environmental crimes section and now serves as the Jeffrey F. Liss Professor from Practice at Michigan Law and director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program. “Climate change, threats to biodiversity, and depleting natural resources create sustainability challenges for our nation and the world, even as the federal government’s commitment to environmental protection is waning. Now more than ever, we need a strong environmental crimes program to uphold our values.”

The conference continues Friday morning with a panel discussion about the role of criminal enforcement in environmental and worker safety disasters, with a focus on the Gulf oil spill and the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, both of which occurred in April 2010. The second morning panel will focus on fraud and concealment, with an emphasis on the recent prosecution of Volkswagen and the use of Title 18 charges generally.

Lunch will include a presentation about the Environmental Criminal Project, a student-led research effort at Michigan Law where more than 200 students have collected data about all pollution cases investigated by the EPA that resulted in criminal charges since 2005.

After lunch, the conference will feature breakout discussions in two recurring areas of environmental criminal enforcement: pipeline safety issues (with an emphasis on the 2010 Enbridge oil spill in the Kalamazoo River) and international smuggling cases (with a focus on the 2016 prosecution of Lumber Liquidators for importing illegally seized hardwoods from Asia). The conference will conclude with a panel discussion about the criminal prosecution of state and local officials for the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and will explore the extent to which residents were betrayed by their state and municipal governments—as well as the difficult question of under what circumstances government officials should face criminal charges.

The moderators are University of Michigan law professors, joined by panelists that include academics, prosecutors, and defense attorneys from throughout the United States who are leading experts on environmental crime. Conference participants include Michigan faculty and students, as well as Ann Arbor residents and interested citizens from throughout Michigan.