Nov. 20 – The people who investigate environmental crimes just got a new set of partners: traditional law enforcement.
State environmental inspectors who review sites for possible Code violations will also track down other crimes committed, including state ones, as part of a newly formed task force aimed at sharing information and avoiding conflict that comes with jurisdictional boundaries.
It’s an attempt to move away from granular enforcement, where agencies focus strictly on their regulations while overlooking other types of rule-breaking and criminal behavior.
The state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are leading the task force, which is made up of state, federal and tribal agencies, with plans to bring in more to expand policing.
This type of collaboration creates a larger intelligence network and reduces the potential for siled enforcement, officials say.
“If I don’t have responsibility for problems that I can solve, it gives me the opportunity to then hand them over to other agencies and vice versa,” Environment Secretary James Kenney said in an interview.
Task Force members include the State Game and Fish Department, the State Land Office, the FBI, the State Attorney General, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Navajo Nation Justice Department.
Kenney said he’s wanted to partner with the EPA for years to create an environmental crimes task force. The Trump administration’s EPA has no interest in it, but the agency under President Joe Biden has backed the idea, he said.
In a statement, Kim Bahney, the special agent in charge of EPA’s criminal investigations in the region, stressed the value of such a partnership.
“This task force is being created to curb environmental crime in the state of New Mexico and the neighboring tribal areas,” Behney said. “Public health and the environment should not suffer from intentional polluters.”
The agencies meet at least once a month to make sure they are in agreement, review how well the partnership is working and discuss what can be done better.
This interagency coordination will ensure environmental lawbreakers are held accountable and prosecuted to protect New Mexico’s wildlife and natural resources, Darren Vaughan, state spokesman for Game and Fish, wrote in an email.
“It will allow for better information sharing and communication between agencies with the authority and responsibility to investigate and prosecute environmental offenders,” Vaughan wrote, adding that “keeping New Mexico as a beautiful state is critical.” , which it is for present and future generations. “
Sidney Hill, spokesman for the state’s Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, agreed that the task force will increase inter-agency cooperation.
“It just makes sense that the more agencies and individuals focus on an issue, the less likely it is that issues will go undetected,” Hill wrote in an email.
Kenney said his inspectors need training on environmental laws and regulations outside his agency’s jurisdiction so they know what to look out for.
“If you don’t look for environmental crimes, you’ll never find one,” Kenney said.
For example, if an inspector is checking that a company is compliant with hazardous waste regulations, but observes a chop shop where crews are dismantling stolen cars and releasing air conditioning refrigerant into the atmosphere, that inspector would know he was dealing with the criminal offenses of the competent authority would have to report to authorities, he said.
If they encounter unlawful water pollution that affects endangered species, they would notify state and federal wildlife agencies, he said.
Inspectors are also being trained to have more of a law enforcement mentality when it comes to detecting criminal activity, Kenney said.
That could mean showing up at a site an hour before the scheduled tour to see if the owner is loading litter into a truck to take away, he said. Or they should look closely to make sure the recorded data matches up, he said, recalling a time when a company claimed to be making needed repairs at multiple locations in a time frame that was impossible.
Falsifying reports is illegal, and sending it to a law enforcement agency constitutes mail fraud — a federal crime, Kenney said.
In an email, an FBI official wrote that the FBI is happy to join the team in bringing those violating federal environmental laws to justice.
“While the FBI has a reputation for catching violent criminals, spies, and computer hackers, another of our important but lesser-known missions is investigating those who are abusing or endangering our country’s natural resources,” wrote Raul Bujanda, the officer in charge Special Agent the FBI’s Albuquerque Division.
The FBI uses the same methods to solve these crimes, such as dispatching special agents to interview victims or assisting partners in digital forensics on a complex case, Bujanda wrote.
Kenney said it’s important not to let criminals get away with breaking the law, not only because of the impact on the environment, but also because of the unfair environment for people who invest time, money and energy to comply with the law.
He said he hopes to enlist other federal agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to help fight environmental crimes on public and tribal lands.
For so many state and federal agencies in New Mexico to work together to protect the environment is a milestone, but the ultimate purpose is to make bad actors pay for their crimes, Kenney said.
“Our aim is not to coordinate; our goal is to prosecute,” Kenney said. “It’s not that we need new laws. We have to enforce the laws we already have.”