“What the detective story is about
is not murder
but the restoration of order.”
How do we protect communities — especially long-neglected communities of color — from environmental harms caused by corporate polluters, lax oversight, and poor enforcement of existing laws?
This country desperately needs new eco-detectives — trained employees and citizens who can identify and uncover pollution, poaching and other eco-threats that harm people, wildlife and the planet.
Like most nations the United States has never taken these types of crimes and assaults seriously. This was especially true during the Trump administration, which saw enforcement of environmental regulations fall to an all-time low. But that neglect built upon a systemic flaw, which sees the perpetrators of environmental crimes receiving punishments that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist — if they’re prosecuted at all.
It’s time to fix that, not just for the past administration’s four years of malfeas but to correct a history of injustice.
Let’s start with the Environmental Protection Agency, which needs more investigations to detect and stop corporations from poisoning our air, water and bodies. Under Trump the EPA shed thousands of staff members and reduced its enforcement of existing laws. Those people need to be back on the beat. President Biden’s 2023 budget proposal aims to create the equivalent of more than 1,900 new full-time positions. That’s a start, but it barely makes up for the 1,500 jobs the EPA shed during the first year and a half of the previous administration. Let’s double that number of new hires.
But why stop there? We also need more investigators at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and other agencies to protect our wildlife and endangered species — our natural, cultural heritage — from poachers, corporate development and climate change. The Fish and Wildlife Service only has about 250 special agents probing criminal crimes, many of which require multiyear investigations, while the BLM has only 70 people dedicated to criminal investigations. That’s hardly enough to serve a country our size.
Similarly, we need more inspectors at our chronically understaffed ports and borders to detect illegal wildlife trafficking and protect endangered species from exploitation and the rest of us from introduced diseases and invasive species. To accomplish this, the Border Patrol’s history of racism and brutality needs to be systematically transitioned into a future of science and service. And it’s not the only federal law-enforcement branch that needs reform — I’m looking at you, US Park Police.
Of course, once we discover a crime, we need to do something about it. That’s why, on top of investigators, we also need more environmental prosecutors at the Department of Justice, to make sure these types of crimes are properly punished. That’s especially true now, when the DOJ is already stretched beyond capacity as it prosecutes the more than 700 individuals arrested during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Again, Biden’s 2023 budget proposes some of this, with an additional $6.5 million for DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, but that’s a long way from becoming official. The EPA and DOJ also announced several initiatives to address environmental justice on May 5, so hopefully that will kickstart some effort and action.