Enforcing environmental laws is an integral part of EPA's Strategic Plan to protect human health and the environment. EPA works to ensure compliance with environmental requirements and, when warranted, will take civil or criminal enforcement action. Lean more about our enforcement goals.
One of EPA's top priorities is to expand the conversation on work for environmental justice (EJ). EPA is integrating EJ into enforcement and compliance planning and program implementation, case targeting and development of remedies to benefit overburdened communities. Learn more about Plan EJ 2014 "Advancing EJ through Compliance and Enforcement"
This section provides basic information on EPA’s enforcement and compliance programs, actions, activities, reports and data.
Civil enforcement protects human health and the environment by taking legal action to bring polluters into compliance with the law.
Criminal enforcement investigates and assists in the criminal prosecution of deliberate or egregious violations of environmental laws or regulations and any associated violation of the U.S. criminal code.
What is the difference between Criminal and Civil Enforcement?
Criminal and civil enforcement differ in:
- Environmental civil liability is strict: it arises simply through the existence of the environmental violation, without regard to what the responsible party knew about the matter.
- Environmental criminal liability is triggered through the existence of some level of intent.
As a result of this distinction, most of the environmental crimes that EPA investigates involve "knowing violations" of the law, which are classified as felonies in all but two of the federal environmental statutes, TSCA and FIFRA.
A "knowing violation" is one in which the defendant is aware of the facts that constitute the violation an instance in which conscious and informed action brought about the violation, rather than, as would be the case with a civil violation, an accident or mistake.
For example, an intentional decision to discharge pollutants into a river without a permit, or to bypass a required air pollution control device could be a "knowing violation," and thus criminal, without regard to the defendants knowledge of the law.
To be found civilly liable (note that a party can only be found "guilty" in a criminal case), the standard of proof is based upon "the preponderance of the evidence," which means that the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. Effectively, the standard is satisfied if there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the proposition is true.
The defendant in a civil suit can either be found liable following a trial or reach a mutually agreed-upon settlement with the government that is called a consent decree. While the defendant is then required to meet all of the terms of the consent decree, he does not have to acknowledge that he violated the law.
Criminal guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a higher or stricter standard than the civil liability standard. When a criminal defendant pleads guilty or is convicted by a jury, there is no question of legal wrongdoing, he/she has legally committed the crime.
The major difference in the result between civil and criminal prosecutions is that an individual can be sentenced to prison for breaking the criminal law. It is the possibility of incarceration that most distinguishes criminal law from civil law and, therefore, criminal law provides the most deterrence.
If a civil defendant is found liable or agrees to a consent decree, the result is usually a monetary fine, injunctive relief (which are the actions required to correct the violation, e.g., install pollution control equipment) or additional actions taken to improve the environment.
If a criminal defendant is convicted or pleads guilty, the result can be a criminal fine (e.g., a monetary fine paid to the U.S. Treasury), and / or restitution (e.g., reimbursing the government for the cost of cleanup or response, paying for the harm caused by the violation such as paying for medical testing for people exposed to asbestos as a result of breaking the law).
Cleanup enforcement gets property cleaned up by finding the companies or persons responsible for contamination at a site, and by negotiating with them to perform the clean up themselves, by ordering them to perform the clean up, or to have them pay for the clean up performed by another party or the Agency.
Federal facilities enforcement ensures federal facilities comply with environmental regulations and statutes.
Types of Enforcement Actions
Civil Administrative Actions are non-judicial enforcement actions taken by EPA or a state under its own authority, without involving a judicial court process. An administrative action by EPA or a state agency may be in the form of:
- A notice of violation or a Superfund notice letter, or
- An administrative order or order (either with or without penalties) directing an individual, a business, or other entity to take action to come into compliance, or to clean up a site.
Civil Judicial Actions are formal lawsuits, filed in court, against persons or entities that have failed to comply with statutory or regulatory requirements, with an administrative order, or who owe EPA response costs for cleaning up a Superfund site. These cases are filed by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of EPA and, in regulatory cases, by the State's Attorneys General for the states as well. Learn more about Civil Cases and Settlement.
Criminal Actions can occur when EPA or a state enforce against an entity or person through a criminal action, depending on the nature and severity of the violation. Criminal actions are usually reserved for the most serious violations, those that are willful, or knowingly committed. A court conviction can result in the imposition of fines or imprisonment.
Types of Enforcement Results
Settlements are generally agreed-upon resolutions to an enforcement case. In an administrative action, settlements are often in the form of consent agreements/final orders (CA/FOs) or administrative orders on consent (AOCs). In a judicial context, settlements are embodied in consent decrees signed by all parties to the action and filed in the appropriate court.
Civil Penalties are monetary assessments to be paid by a person or regulated entity in connection with a violation or noncompliance. Penalties act as an incentive for coming into compliance and staying in compliance with the environmental statutes and regulations. Penalties are designed to recover the economic benefit of noncompliance as well as an amount to account for the seriousness of the violation.
Injunctive Relief requires a regulated entity to perform, or refrain from performing, some designated action, and to come into and maintain, compliance with those environmental laws.
Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) are environmental improvement projects that a violator voluntarily agrees to perform, in addition to actions required to correct the violations, as part of an enforcement settlement. Learn more about SEPs.
Criminal Penalties are federal, state or local fines that may be imposed by a Judge at the sentencing. In addition to criminal penalties, the defendant may be ordered to pay restitution to those affected by the violation. For example, a defendant may be ordered to pay a local fire department the cost of responding to and containing a hazardous waste spill.
Incarceration refers to “jail time” for an individual defendant.
Enforcement Reports and Data
Annual Results : At the end of each fiscal year, EPA announces the results of compliance assurance and enforcement activities. Annual results of the compliance and enforcement program and highlights of specific accomplishments are available below. Another presentation of the program's results can be found in the compliance assurance and enforcement Accomplishment Reports.
Enforcement and Compliance Data : The information that EPA uses to manage and assess performance of the Agency's enforcement and compliance assurance program is stored in several national data systems. These systems were built to support specific environmental statutes. In general, EPA regions or states input data into the systems.