A few years back, U.S. EPA enforcement agents tracked a Utah environmental fugitive to a trailer parked at a marina in the Florida Keys.
Larkin Baggett, one of EPA’s "most wanted" criminals at the time, appeared in the trailer doorway sweeping an assault rifle toward the approaching EPA agents and local cops, saying things like, "I won’t go," according to court documents. The officers opened fire, wounding Baggett and taking him into custody.
Cases such as the 2009 Baggett skirmish demonstrate why it’s important for EPA agents to be armed, argue supporters of the agency’s criminal program. They can face off against armed criminals, people using dangerous chemicals and fugitives anxious to avoid jail time.
But a freshman senator wants to take their guns away — an effort that has EPA employees and law enforcement officials up in arms.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) is pushing a measure that would strip EPA’s special agents of their ability to carry firearms. His effort stems from a 2013 incident near Chicken, Alaska, when miners complained that they’d been intimidated with weapons and body armor by enforcement officials from EPA and other agencies who were investigating potential violations of clean water laws (E&ENews PM, Sept. 5, 2013).
Sullivan offered his amendment to a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline that’s pending in the Senate, although it almost certainly won’t see a vote this time around. But the Alaska Republican plans to keep pressing the issue.
"Disarming the EPA was a campaign promise made by Sen. Sullivan, and continues to be a top priority of his," said a Sullivan spokesman. "If it is not a component of the Keystone XL legislation, Sen. Sullivan intends to work with his colleagues in the near future to get this amendment across the finish line."
That’s troubling to critics, who say the measure would put officers at risk and torpedo the agency’s ability to pursue environmental criminals. They’re concerned that the issue will come up again this Congress and that it could set a precedent of lawmakers looking to target other government law enforcement programs.
"I’m very concerned" about Senate efforts to block EPA agents from carrying guns "because I don’t think EPA special agents will be able to do their jobs, which means that there won’t be an EPA criminal enforcement program," said Fred Burnside, former director of EPA’s criminal enforcement program.
"These agents conduct interviews, they’re out at night, they investigate in isolated locations with no back-up, they knock on doors, and they execute arrest and search warrants," Burnside added. "They could run into the same types of problems that would pose a significant threat to agents and to others, so it’s important that they be armed."
Like other crime fighters, the nearly 180 special agents in EPA’s criminal enforcement branch are authorized to carry weapons as they investigate environmental crimes and pursue suspects like Baggett. Their work can involve interviewing people who witnessed crimes, carrying out searches and arresting those suspected of breaking clean air or water laws.
An EPA official said in a statement yesterday that "to remove this basic law enforcement tool from the hands of EPA agents could put the safety of the officers — and the public — at risk."
Fear about ‘domino impact’
Meanwhile, a coalition of federal law enforcement officials is warning Senate leadership that Sullivan’s efforts are "misguided" and would prevent highly trained EPA officers from doing their jobs.
Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier this week, voicing the group’s strong opposition to disarming EPA.
That letter quotes an EPA criminal investigator saying, "There is no way we can accomplish our mission safely without a means to protect ourselves."
Adler’s group — which represents more than 25,000 federal law enforcement officers from over 65 different agencies — is also worried that Sullivan’s effort could have broader impacts beyond EPA.
"We are deeply concerned with the profound ignorance expressed in the amendment and the possible collateral damage or sort of psychological domino impact it may have on others," Adler said in an interview. "If one senator seeks to solve what he or she sees as an issue with the law, an issue with regulations, and reaches a conclusion that law enforcement officers should be disarmed, then it sort of concerns us in terms of who’s next. If you disarm the EPA, when are we going to make our way to the FBI?"
Sullivan said yesterday that he wasn’t surprised by the pushback from law enforcement officers but hasn’t been dissuaded. He said EPA enforcement officials can still do their jobs without being armed. "They’ll stay safe, just work closely with local law enforcement or federal marshals or others who are armed," he said.
And he isn’t the only lawmaker questioning whether EPA agents should carry guns.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said earlier this week, "Do we really need to have an armed bureaucracy?" The Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairwoman didn’t say whether she backed Sullivan’s amendment but called the issue a "good and legitimate question."
"I think we need to look critically and realistically at all the federal agencies that are out there that have their own enforcement arms," she said, noting that there are many armed federal agencies that need to cooperate with more conventional law enforcement. "Do we really need all of this?" (E&ENews PM, Jan. 27).
But so far, Adler said, the reaction his group has gotten from lawmakers has been "very favorable," noting that several Democratic senators have spoken out against Sullivan’s effort. "Our only concern is that ultimately if the two parties go party line, that’s the concern and the risk that we face. But I think if we were able to carve out this issue as a standalone issue, we would easily prevail in terms of support in the broader Senate."
‘It’s going to demoralize the working troops’
Former EPA officials say Sullivan’s efforts will deal another blow to an office that’s already taken some hits in terms of staffing and morale.
"It’s a tough time in government, and frankly budgets are tough, and then you come up with sound bites like this," said Michael Hubbard, the former special agent in charge of criminal enforcement in EPA’s Region 1 office in Boston, who’s now retired.
"Certainly it’s going to demoralize the working troops that in spite of all of this … are still trying to do a good job, trying to maintain safeguards for human health and the environment and going out and doing it with less resources than they’ve had in the past," Hubbard added.
EPA’s criminal enforcement division has 178 special agents on staff, despite a law requiring them to have 200. Current and former EPA officials say the office has been forced to scale back its work in certain regions and issue areas in recent years amid budget cuts and staff losses — shifting their focus to only the worst polluters. And people close to EPA’s criminal investigation program have said some crimes are falling through the cracks as a result (Greenwire, April 10, 2014).
"I think there’s always been detractors for the EPA criminal program," Burnside said. "Especially people on the receiving end have trouble wrapping their mind around EPA special agents having that level of authority." But, he added, "EPA special agents need to be very careful about how they use their authority, how they are perceived by the public, and not be too heavy handed."
Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of EPA’s civil enforcement office, criticized the effort as part of a broader push to score political efforts by targeting the agency.
"Anybody can say anything about EPA right now," Schaeffer said.
He added that he finds the effort particularly worrisome as other lawmakers push to expand the public’s ability to carry guns. Just yesterday, congressional Republicans revived a push to allow visitors to campgrounds and trails managed by the Army Corps of Engineers to carry firearms; loaded guns have been allowed in national parks and wildlife refuges since Congress passed a law dictating it in 2009 (E&E Daily, Jan. 29).
"The only people who won’t have them are law enforcement agents," Schaeffer said.
Reporters Nick Juliano and Manuel Quiñones contributed.