Friday, May 28, 2010

Role of Criminal Penalties in Enforcing Violations of Environmental Law

Faulty car airbags, combustible printer parts, and metallic debris in canned foods exemplify the unfortunate offspring of mass-production. A defect in an everyday product is usually easy to spot, either because it causes injury or deviates from the consumer’s expected use of it. Companies are held strictly liable for such defects, meaning that even though they did not intend harm and took every necessary precaution, they still have to compensate consumers of defective products. Consequently, most companies take extraordinary measures to avoid manufacturing and design defects in their products. In short, the process regulates itself.

Unlike defective products, a company’s environmental violations are more difficult to spot: the problem is not as obvious (pollution of a stream vs. an exploding toaster), much of a business’s operations can be hidden from governmental regulators, and the effects (health, economic, etc.) of the violation may only be felt years later. And even then it is difficult to link the adverse effect to a delinquent company. Therefore, the most effective way to remediate environmental violations is to deter a potential culprit from disregarding the regulation by imposing steep civil and, in instances of negligence, criminal penalties. For example, both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act contain provisions allowing criminal penalties for negligent violations of the statutes that can be extended to “any responsible corporate officer.” This clause, known as the responsible corporate officer doctrine, allows high-level corporate officers to be criminally charged, even without actual knowledge of the violations.

Congress has chosen to include provisions for criminal penalties in its environmental regulations for a few reasons. For certain violations, there is a cap on the amount of damages for civil claims. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 put a $75 million limit on the amount that can be paid for private economic and public natural-resource claims, even though the extent of damage from a violation may exceed this amount. By imposing criminal violations, however, Congress can compel the violating companies to contribute more to help with cleaning up the pollution and compensating those affected. Additionally, many of the largest companies are also the largest polluters, partly because they can afford to be. A $75 million slap on the wrist is unlikely to effectively deter a company like Chevron, whose annual revenue exceeds $200 billion, from cutting corners in its environmental operations. On the other hand, expose that same company (assuming they are found to be in violation of environmental law) to the potential of criminal penalties, and the regulation, now fitted with sharper teeth, can be much more effective.

The basic idea is that by stiffening the backbone of environmental law, regulators can obligate companies and their officers to regulate themselves, forcing them to approach environmental compliance with the same vigor they devote to the development of their own products.

-Kyle Johnson

Farming Potential in Urban Areas

Imagine waking up in a downtown apartment to the busy sounds of morning with a hankering for fresh fruit. The last thing you want to do is fight rush hour traffic to get to the grocery store, so you throw on a robe and march up to the roof where your garden is in full bloom. After picking some ripe strawberries you head back downstairs to add them to a bowl of Cheerios and start the day. Sound far-fetched? Actually, rooftop gardening has been around for millennia, with roots dating back to ancient Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years ago. Today, as the density of urban centers increases, available space for gardening is becoming increasingly scarce. To help reduce the size of a city’s ecological footprint (a measure of human demand on Earth’s ecosystems), as well as provide aesthetic and architectural benefits, many urban planners believe that urban agriculture can be an effective tool.

There are two kinds of rooftop gardening: green roofs and rooftop gardens. Whereas rooftop gardens act much like backyard gardens, with walkways and furniture, green roofs are almost entirely covered with vegetation. Perhaps most importantly, “green roofs” can potentially lead to substantial energy savings by reducing the need for air conditioning. According to a study at the University of Cardiff in the UK, green roofs and walls can reduce local temperatures by up to 11.3°C, depending on the city. How, you might ask? Hot surfaces, such as concrete, metal, and asphalt, which make up most urban structures, warm the surrounding air and create “urban heat islands.” Because green surfaces absorb less heat from the sun, these surfaces, and consequently, the surrounding air, are cooled. In addition, plants, through a process known as evapotranspiration, cool the air by evaporating water. Thus, green roofs act as a kind of insulation.

Rooftop gardens, on the other hand, provide a local source of food, which lessens reliance on trucking in food from distant farms. If every apartment building in a downtown area had its own garden, imagine the potential for energy conservation and community development, not to mention a cheap source of fresh food. Many have recreational areas, furniture, hammocks and even trees, adding organic aesthetic beauty to an otherwise inorganic environment. Rooftop gardens also help urban denizens maintain a connection to nature that can be difficult to maintain when surrounded by miles of concrete and asphalt.

Many cities now have their own urban agriculture organizations, dedicated to furthering the goals of sustainability and providing resources for residents interested in starting their own urban garden. Some helpful starting points for anyone interested in urban gardening include the Resource Centers on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF) Foundation,, and

-Kyle Johnson