EPA Overkill

Originally published at National Review by  HANS A. VON SPAKOVSKY | 9/16/2011

Everyone knows about the FBI’s famous “Ten Most Wanted” list. The current roster includes murderers, racketeers, kidnappers, drug smugglers, and armed robbers — criminals who represent real dangers to society.

But did you know that the Environmental Protection Agency also has its own FBI-type list of 18 most-wanted environmental fugitives? Their menacing violations include “multiple counts for the blending of motor fuel” (oh my!), selling “R-12 Freon, an ozone depleting substance” (gadzooks!), importing “automobiles that did not meet” U.S. emissions standards (horrors!), giving “indications that the oil-content monitor downstream of the [freighter] vessel’s oily-water separator had been bypassed” (heavens to Betsy!) and aiding and abetting “false entries into an Oil Record Book” (bring out the guillotine!).

The EPA website presents the entire list of these wily, dangerous criminals, complete with downloadable “Wanted Posters.” (I kid you not.) And the EPA website warns: “Do not attempt to apprehend any of these individuals.” My goodness — one of them might spray you with Freon or put a false entry in the maintenance records you keep for your car on how often you change the oil.

The Heritage Foundation has an entire project on overcriminalization, the alarming trend in Congress to try to use criminal law to solve every problem, punish every mistake, and generally coerce Americans into conforming their behavior to satisfy liberal social-engineering objectives. Criminal law is supposed to be used to punish dangerous conduct deserving of the greatest, most substantial punishment. For less serious, less dangerous activities, we’re supposed to use civil penalties. Especially disturbing is the way in which Congress has, over the years, given federal regulatory agencies such as the EPA the ability to criminalize conduct through regulations. Only Congress should have the power to determine what type of intentional and knowingly wrongful conduct is deserving of criminal, as opposed to civil, punishment, and criminal punishment should be the exception rather than the norm.

Maintaining a clean environment is an important public-policy objective. And there is no doubt that there are occasionally serious violations of our environmental laws that should be pursued by the federal government. But creating a most-wanted list for these types of environmental violations, something that the FBI has used to hunt down truly dangerous criminals (and terrorists like Osama bin Laden), trivializes the seriousness of criminal-most-wanted lists and makes a mockery of environmental law. It also makes the EPA look like an out-of-control federal agency that should be featured in National Lampoon or The Onion.