20 Nov. The people who investigate environmental crimes just got a new set of partners: traditional law enforcement officers.
State environmental inspectors who monitor sites for possible code violations will also track other crimes being committed, including federal ones, under a newly formed task force that aims to share information and avoid conflicts associated with jurisdictional boundaries.
It is an attempt to move away from compartmentalized enforcement, where authorities focus strictly on their regulations, while other forms of rule violation and criminal behavior are ignored.
The state Department of the Environment 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 kind of collaboration creates a larger intelligence network and reduces the potential for siled enforcement, officials say.
“If I don’t have jurisdiction over issues that I can solve, it gives me the ability to then transfer that to other agencies, and vice versa,” Secretary of State for the Environment James Kenney said in an interview.
Members of the task force include the State Game and Fish Department, the State Land Office, the FBI, the State Attorney General, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Navajo Nation Justice Department.
Kenney said he had wanted to work with EPA for years to create an environmental crimes task force. The Trump administration’s EPA had no interest in it, but the agency under President Joe Biden was behind the idea, he said.
In a statement, Kim Bahney, special agent in charge of EPA’s criminal investigations in the region, pointed to the value of such a partnership.
“This task force is being created to curb environmental crime in the state of New Mexico and adjacent tribal areas,” Behney said. “Public health and the environment should not suffer from intentional polluters.”
Agencies meet at least once a month to make sure they are on the same wavelength, to check how well the partnership is working and to discuss what could be improved.
This interagency coordination will ensure that environmental law violators are held accountable and prosecuted to protect New Mexico’s wildlife and natural resources, Darren Vaughan, state spokesperson for Game and Fish, wrote in an email.
“It will allow for better information sharing and communication between agencies that have the authority and jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute violators of environmental laws,” Vaughan wrote, adding that it is critical to “making New Mexico the beautiful state keep it as it is for current and future generations.”
Sidney Hill, spokesman for the state’s Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, agreed that the task force will strengthen interagency collaboration.
“It just makes sense that the more agencies and individuals you have focused on a problem, the less likely problems are to go undetected,” Hill wrote in an email.
Kenney said his inspectors will need to be trained in environmental laws and regulations outside his agency’s purview so they know what to look for.
“If you’re not looking for environmental crimes, you’ll never find one,” Kenney said.
For example, if an inspector checks a company’s compliance with hazardous waste regulations, but observes a shop where crews are dismantling stolen cars and releasing air conditioning refrigerants into the atmosphere, that inspector knows to report the crimes to the proper authorities. authorities, he said.
If they find illegal water contamination affecting endangered species, they would notify state and federal wildlife agencies, he said.
Inspectors will also be trained to have more of a law enforcement mindset when detecting criminal activity, Kenney said.
That could mean showing up at a location an hour before the scheduled walk-through to see if the owner is loading trash into a truck to haul away, he said. Or they have to look closely to make sure the records are accurate, he said, recalling a time when a company claimed to make the required repairs at multiple locations in a time frame that was impossible.
Falsifying reports is illegal and sending them to an enforcement agency constitutes mail fraud — a federal crime, Kenney said.
In an email, an FBI official wrote that the agency was happy to join the team in bringing to justice those who violate federal environmental laws.
“While the FBI has a reputation for catching violent criminals, spies and computer hackers, another important but lesser-known responsibility is to investigate those who misuse or endanger our nation’s natural resources,” wrote Raul Bujanda, the special agent who oversees the Albuquerque Division of the FBI.
The FBI uses the same methods to solve these crimes, such as sending special agents to interview victims or assisting partners with 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 environmental impact, but also because of the level playing field it creates for people who invest time, money and energy to comply. keep the law.
He said he hopes to enlist other federal agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to help address environmental crimes on public and tribal lands.
That so many state and federal agencies in New Mexico are working together to protect the environment is a milestone, but the goal is ultimately to make bad actors pay for their crimes, Kenney said.
“Our goal is not to coordinate, our goal is to prosecute,” Kenney said. “It’s not that we need new laws. We need to enforce the laws we already have.”