Lawmakers weigh jail time for water polluters

California state legislators are considering stiffening penalties for oil spills in inland waters by making company executives eligible for jail time.

A bill introduced by Rep. Pedro Nava (D) would bring inland pollution penalties up to a level currently reserved for ocean spills -- raising the maximum sentence for failing to report a hazardous spill to include up to six months in jail, in addition to an existing $50,000 fine.

The law would not require violations to be "willful," as U.S. EPA's criminal statutes specify. Violators could incur jail time simply for failing to notify authorities of a spill.

"The whole idea is that you have some operators -- not many, but you do have some -- who I think consider fines and penalties to be the cost of doing business," Nava said.

Jail time does not lose value relative to profits, the lawmaker pointed out. "As the cost of a barrel of oil increases, the fines and penalties don't always match that increase. I think when the fines and penalties aren't high enough, certainly the threat of jail time will force executives to be much more responsible."


In 2005, subsidiaries of Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, Northern California's primary pipeline operator, settled with the state for more than $5 million over 12 misdemeanor counts of diesel fuel spills into the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles Harbor (Greenwire, April 27, 2005). Kinder Morgan executives would have been eligible for jail time under Nava's proposal.

Increasing the penalties should send a message that inland waters are no less vulnerable than marine waters, said Rick Frank, a former California deputy attorney general and director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

"There was a serious concern that [Kinder Morgan] ... allowed this spill to occur and didn't bother reporting it to authorities for a seriously overdue amount of time," Frank said. "A lot of inland waters are just as sensitive as coastal waters."

"There's historically been an imbalance between penalties for marine spills and inland spills," Nava said. "Marine environment has always attracted a lot of attention because of the fragility of the coastal environment, and it spreads quickly. Inland spills are not always seen, and the effects aren't necessarily realized unless you've got a spill in a blueline stream," which empties out into the ocean.

"A substantial inland spill, if not properly cared for, can reach the water table, or if there's rainfall, there's a risk that it makes its way to the ocean," Nava added.

The authority to send polluters to jail can help agencies enforce other regulations, said Greg Brose, chief deputy district attorney for Ventura County. "One of the very important aspects of a lot of environmental regulations is the expectation that people are going to provide accurate information to the regulators," he said. "When they go to a facility and ask for records, they expect the entity to truly disclose what the situation is."

"While [individual spills] might not result in any actual harm to the environment, it certainly does not allow regulators to do their job and make sure environmental laws are being complied with," Brose said.

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