Environmental agencies, law enforcement building task force

Nov. 20—The people who investigate environmental crimes just got a new set of partners: traditional law enforcement.

State environmental inspectors checking sites for potential code violations also will ferret out other crimes being committed, including federal ones, under a newly formed task force that aims to share information and avoid conflicts that come with jurisdictional boundaries.

It's an effort to move away from compartmentalized enforcement in which agencies focus strictly on their regulations while missing other types of rule-breaking and criminal behavior.

The state Environment Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are leading the task force composed of state, federal and tribal agencies, with plans of bringing more into the fold to broaden the policing.

This kind of cooperative effort creates a larger intelligence network and lessens the potential for siloed enforcement, officials say.

"If I don't have jurisdiction over problems that I can resolve, it gives me the ability to then hand that off to other agencies, and vice versa," state Environment Secretary James Kenney said in an interview.

Task force members include the state Game and Fish Department, the state Land Office, the FBI, the state Attorney General, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Navajo Nation Justice Department.

Kenney said he has wanted for years to team up with EPA to launch an environmental crimes task force. The Trump administration's EPA had no interest in it, but the agency under President Joe Biden got behind the idea, he said.

In a statement, Kim Bahney, special agent in charge of EPA's criminal investigations in the region, noted the value of such a partnership.

"This task force is being created to curb environmental crime in the state of New Mexico and neighboring tribal territories," Behney said. "Public health and the environment should not suffer at the hands of deliberate polluters."

Agencies will meet at least once a month to ensure they're on the same page, check on how well the partnership is working and discuss what can be done better.

This interagency coordination will ensure environmental lawbreakers are held accountable and prosecuted to protect New Mexico's wildlife and natural resources, Darren Vaughan, state Game and Fish spokesman, wrote in an email.

"It will provide for better information sharing and communication among agencies that have the authority and jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute environmental law offenders," Vaughan wrote, adding that it's critical to "keep New Mexico the beautiful state it is for current and future generations."

Sidney Hill, spokesman for the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, agreed the task force will strengthen the cooperative effort between the various agencies.

"It just makes sense that the more agencies and individuals you have focusing on an issue, the less likely it is that problems will go undetected," Hill wrote in an email.

Kenney said his inspectors will have to be trained on environmental laws as well as regulations outside his agency's purview so they know what to watch out for.

"If you're not looking for environmental crimes, you will never find one," Kenney said.

For example, if an inspector checks to see whether a company is complying with hazardous waste rules but observes a chop shop where crews are dismantling stolen cars and releasing air-conditioner refrigerants into the atmosphere, that inspector would know to report the crimes to the proper authorities, he said.

If they encounter unlawful water pollution that impacts endangered species, they would notify the state and federal wildlife agencies, he said.

Inspectors also will be trained to have more of a law enforcement mentality in catching criminal activities, Kenney said.

That could mean showing up to a site an hour before the scheduled walk-through to see if the owner is loading waste into a truck to haul away, he said. Or they should look carefully to make sure recorded data adds up, he said, recalling a time when a company claimed to make required multisite repairs in a time frame that was impossible.

Falsifying reports is illegal, and mailing them to an enforcement agency constitutes mail fraud — a federal crime, Kenney said.

In an email, an FBI official wrote the bureau was glad to join the team to help bring those who break federal environmental laws to justice.

"While the FBI has a reputation for catching violent criminals, spies, and computer hackers, another one of our important but lesser-known responsibilities is investigating those who abuse or endanger our nation's natural resources," wrote Raul Bujanda, the special agent who oversees the FBI's Albuquerque Division.

The FBI uses its 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 to not let criminals get away with violating the law, not only because of the environmental effects but also because of the unfair playing field it creates for people who invest the time, money and energy to comply with the law.

He said he hopes to bring in other federal agencies, such as the the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to help deal with environmental crimes on public and tribal lands.

Having this many state and federal agencies working together in New Mexico to protect the environment is a milestone, but the purpose ultimately is to make bad actors pay for their crimes, Kenney said.

"Our goal isn't 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."