New Legislation Could Tighten Penalties for Environmental Crimes

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Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act on June 9. Photo: Flickr/Center for American Progress

As the oil spill in the Gulf continues to dominate headlines, environmental legislation has become an even more hot-button issue in Washington as well.

One of the newest pieces of legislation introduced to the Senate is the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act (ECEA). Introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the bill aims to hold companies accountable for environmental crimes and to protect victims of environmental crimes by mandating restitution for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

The ongoing spill in the Gulf resulting from the April 20 explosion of an offshore oil rig has brought renewed attention to corporate accountability for recovery costs and restitution of those affected by environmental disasters.

The ECEA directs the Sentencing Commission to amend sentencing guidelines for environmental crimes to reflect the severity of those crimes.

“Currently, restitution in environmental crimes- even crimes that result in death- is discretionary, and only available under limited circumstances,” stated Leahy during his June 9 introduction of the bill.

“Under this bill, those who commit Clean Water Act offenses would have to compensate the victims of these offense for their losses. That restitution will help the people of the Gulf Coast rebuild their coastline and wetlands, their fisheries, and their livelihoods should criminal liability be found.”

Leahy chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday to examine the liability caps for disaster cleanups. He also introduced legislation Tuesday that would amend the Death on the High Seas Act, permitting families of victims killed at sea to seek non-economic damages. The bill is knows as the Survivors Equality Act.

Other pieces of legislation, including the Coastal Jobs Creation Act of 2010 introduced as H.R. 4914 before the spill in March, are being heavily advocated for by many groups in the wake of the spill. Introduced by Congressman Pallone (D-NJ), Congresswoman Pingree (D-ME) and Congresswoman Shea-Porter (D-NH), the bill would create a grant program to fund jobs for fisherman that promote sustainable fisheries and fishing communities and improve and revitalize waterfronts and ocean environment.

Reformation of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) and the Oil Pollution Act is being advocated for in the wake of the spill as well by many groups, most notably the Pew Environmental Group.

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