DoJ looks back at 2016
The Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division has announced the publication of its accomplishments in 2016, documenting one of the most successful years in its history of over a century, including the highest recoveries in environmental enforcement, record-setting recoveries in natural resource damages, and the highest criminal penalties handed down in individual vessel pollution and Lacey Act trafficking cases.
“I am extremely proud and grateful to have led the men and women of this division through a landmark year in its long history of protecting, defending and preserving the environment and natural resources of this great nation,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden. “Together, we brought justice and an immense restoration effort to the Gulf shores spoiled by Deepwater Horizon, and resolution to automobile consumers and all Americans deprived of clean air by Volkswagen’s deceit. And we ended, fairly and honorably, the vast majority of protracted litigation that has stood in the way of a stronger nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and American Indian tribes.”
The division’s responsibilities are broad: enforcing the nation’s civil and criminal pollution-control laws, defending environmental challenges to federal agency programs and activities, representing the United States in matters concerning the stewardship of the nation’s natural resources and public lands, acquiring real property, bringing and defending cases under the wildlife protection statutes, and litigating cases concerning the resources and rights of Indian tribes and their members.
The division’s work in its traditional areas of responsibility continued apace throughout 2016, but the year was highlighted by three extraordinary events: (1) completing the historic settlement with BP arising out of the tragic Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, (2) bringing a Clean Air Act case against Volkswagen and finalizing an exceptional consent decree, which will impact over a half million diesel car owners; and (3) resolving multiple tribal trust cases by reaching court-approved settlements with 17 additional tribes.
The first key enforcement success was the final entry in April 2016 of the consent decree in the Department’s record-breaking settlement with BP in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill litigation in which the United States and the five Gulf Coast states secured payments in excess of $20 billion to resolve their claims against BP. This settlement is the largest in the history of federal law enforcement for a single defendant, and it includes the largest-ever Clean Water Act civil penalty and the largest-ever recovery of damages for injuries to natural resources.
Next, ENRD took important steps toward resolving the civil Clean Air Act violations alleged in the United States’ complaint relating to Volkswagen’s use of devices designed to defeat vehicle emissions tests on approximately 580,000 model year 2009-2016 2.0 and 3.0 liter diesel vehicles sold or leased in the United States. In June 2016, German automaker Volkswagen AG and related entities (Volkswagen) agreed to a settlement relating to the 2.0 liter vehicles, under which it will spend up to $14.7 billion to offer consumers a buyback of the vehicles, and potentially also offer (if approved by regulators) an emissions modification to substantially reduce emissions; fund air pollution reduction projects; and invest in green technology. And, in December, ENRD completed another settlement with Volkswagen that addresses the 3.0 liter vehicles and is valued at approximately $1 billion. Under that agreement, Volkswagen must offer to buy back the older model year 2009-2012 vehicles, and potentially offer an emissions modification (if approved by regulators). For the newer model year 2013-2016 vehicles, if Volkswagen successfully demonstrates that the vehicles can be repaired to comply with the certified emissions standards, they must offer that option and will not be required to offer to buy back those vehicles. Volkswagen also must fund additional air pollution reduction projects like those approved by the court in the 2.0 liter settlement.
In addition to the BP and Volkswagen litigation, the division successfully litigated over 790 cases and handled nearly 7,000 cases, matters, and appeals in 2016. ENRD achieved over $14 billion in civil and criminal fines, penalties, and costs recovered.
The division continued its robust program of prosecuting shipping companies and crew for the intentional discharges of pollutants from ocean-going vessels in U.S. waters. At the end of fiscal year 2016, criminal penalties imposed in these cases totaled more than $363 million in fines and more than 32 years of confinement. And in December 2016, ENRD obtained the largest-ever criminal penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution when it concluded the prosecution of Princess Cruise Lines Ltd. The company pleaded guilty to seven felony charges and will pay a $40 million penalty.
ENRD attorneys also devoted substantial effort to defending key rules at the heart of this Administration’s commitment to safeguard clean air and clean water. The division is defending EPA’s Clean Power Plan—the Agency’s historic Clean Air Act rulemaking that takes action on climate change by reducing greenhouse gases from power plants. The rule has faced challenges from over 100 state and industry parties, with the cases consolidated in West Virginia v. EPA. The division’s vigorous defense of the rule culminated in a marathon six-hour oral argument before a 10-judge en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. An evaluation of ENRD’s defense of other EPA Clean Air Act regulations indicates that the division prevailed in over 90 percent during 2015 and 2016.
In addition to this critically important pollution-control work, the division protected the American taxpayer both through its careful and successful handling of agency land acquisitions and through vigorous and effective defense of cases alleging that government actions took property in violation of the Fifth Amendment, ensuring that the government did not pay more than market value in providing just compensation to landowners. ENRD’s efforts helped federal agencies carry out vital federal programs that serve a variety of important interests, such as promoting the use of renewable energy to foster energy independence. To that end, ENRD defended agency decisions regarding solar projects on public land, and prosecuted those who engaged in renewable fuel fraud—criminal conduct that undermines the renewable fuel standard program Congress created to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and expand the nation’s renewable fuels sector.
The division also made great strides toward advancing environmental justice through all of its work. ENRD’s Counsel for Environmental Justice continued to work closely with attorneys throughout the division, both to improve awareness and understanding of environmental justice issues and to make sure ENRD resolves cases in ways that provide real, concrete results for low-income and vulnerable communities that have suffered disproportionately from damage to the environment.
ENRD also focused on promoting and defending tribal sovereignty, treaty obligations, and the rights of Indian tribes, as well as resolving long-standing disputes with tribes. In particular, ENRD continued its initiative to resolve tribal trust cases, reaching settlements with 17 tribes for almost $493 million between January 1 and September 26, 2016, alone. These settlements add to already-historic efforts in settling these lawsuits. Since January 20, 2009, the division has settled the claims of 104 tribes for a total of $3.35 billion. These settlements represent a significant milestone in improving the government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes.
The division’s work also helps ensure effective stewardship of the nation’s public lands, natural resources and animals, including fighting for the survival of the world’s most iconic species and marine resources, and working across the government and the globe to end the illegal trade in wildlife. Here, too, ENRD continued to achieve outstanding results. Along with senior leadership from the Departments of State and the Interior, Assistant Attorney General Cruden co-chairs the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which unites 17 federal agencies to combat the pernicious trade in wildlife that is decimating many species throughout the world and undermining global security.
ENRD brought some of the most significant wildlife prosecutions in our history this year, particularly in the timber trafficking case against Lumber Liquidators. That case yielded a total of $13.15 million in penalties, the largest financial penalty for timber trafficking under the Lacey Act, which makes it a crime to import timber taken in violation of the laws of a foreign country and to transport falsely labeled timber across international borders into the U.S. In Operation Crash, a multi-year, ongoing effort targeting illegal trade of horns from highly endangered rhinoceroses and elephant ivory, the Department thus far has secured combined prison sentences of nearly 34 years, fines of over $2 million, and forfeiture and restitution of $5.5 million.
In addition to these notable achievements, this year the division began vigorously implementing its newly acquired responsibility for criminal worker safety prosecutions and enforcement of animal welfare statutes. ENRD and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices are already working under the new worker safety initiative with several offices within the Department of Labor, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to investigate and prosecute worker endangerment violations. And ENRD took several steps to support enforcement of federal animal welfare statutes, such as conducting training and co-hosting a highly successful conference that brought together federal, state and local leaders to map out a coordinated strategy for the future.
The division also brought criminal charges against nine defendants for their roles in a multi-state dog fighting conspiracy; in coordination with these cases, the United States seized 79 dogs, and ENRD civil attorneys negotiated the surrender of 71 of these dogs—making them potentially available for adoption—and are seeking civil forfeiture of the remaining dogs. The division is just beginning this important work, but it will continue to move forward.
As 2016 drew to a close, the division accepted an award from the Partnership for Public Service, which ranked the Environment and Natural Resources Division as the #2 best place to work in the federal government, as well as the best place to work in the Department of Justice. With more than 300 federal agency subcomponents competing, ENRD’s new rank places it well into the top 1% of all federal workplaces. This honor is truly a testament to the passion, commitment, and professionalism of the extraordinary men and women in this division.