Louisiana polluters face more scrutiny

Number of EPA, DEQ agents set to increase

February 27, 2003
By Laura Maggi
Capital bureau


BATON ROUGE -- More federal and state investigators soon will be available to go after polluters in Louisiana, officials said Wednesday, as the number of Environmental Protection Agency agents in the state increases from three to eight in the coming months.

Louisiana State Police also will dedicate three officers to investigating the illegal dumping of pollutants and other environmental crimes. Those officers likely will work with the eight federal agents, who will be responsible for conducting investigations in Louisiana and Arkansas, said Nick Swanstrom, director of the EPA's criminal investigation division.

"The companies we are after are the ones that are doing it (illegally polluting) on purpose," said Gov. Foster, announcing the plan with federal officials at a news conference at the Governor's Mansion.

Federal officials also vowed to go after companies that try to gain an economic edge by skirting federal environmental regulations.

"The prosecution of environmental crimes is a top priority of the Bush administration," said Thomas Sansonetti, an assistant attorney general with the Justice Department. Sansonetti, head of the agency's environmental crimes division, said his lawyers will assist Louisiana's three U.S. attorneys when necessary. Jim Letten, acting U.S. attorney in Louisiana's Eastern District, said the state's three federal prosecutors had asked EPA to add officers in the state.

The move to increase the number of agents looking into environmental crimes in a state with a large petrochemical industry comes nearly seven months after the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality closed its investigation unit. It also comes on the heels of criticism from the civil enforcement branch of EPA about Louisiana's oversight of regulations designed to protect the state's waterways.

It also comes two weeks after EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman and her top staff demanded that the state agree by March 31 to revamp its water pollution enforcement program or have its authority to issue water permits revoked.

As part of the plan, the state environmental agency will re-institute its criminal investigation unit, which officials said was disbanded last year because of budget shortfalls. For the past few months, the 12 staffers with that office have been working in the enforcement division while also handling the remaining criminal cases.

The six former investigators still at DEQ will create a new full-time investigation unit, said Hall Bollinger, the agency's secretary. After raising fees on industry and receiving extra money from the state general fund, the agency can afford to bring back the section, he said.

Mary Lee Orr, head of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, applauded the move, saying the state needs to conduct its own investigations as well as work with the federal government.

"We have a lot of clusters of large industries," Orr said. While most companies follow environmental mandates, "some companies are not following the law," she said.

On the federal level, the EPA's criminal investigations division will create a New Orleans headquarters, which will complement its existing three-agent office in Baton Rouge.

The expansion makes Louisiana one of 15 offices across the country with eight or more agents, Swanstrom said.

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Laura Maggi can be reached at
lmaggi@timespicayune.com or (225) 342-5590.


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