Cracking down on eco crime

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SINCE 1989, the state of New Jersey in USA has issued US $5 million worth of fines and handed prison sentences amounting to 165 years for environmental crimes. It could do this thanks to the Green Police, New Jersey's answer to the growing menace of indiscriminate toxic waste disposal.

The Green Police is a task force of environmental investigators. Composed mostly of old police recruits, they rely on their forensic experience to track down environmental criminals. As task force director Catalano-Dooley put it, "We look at the evidence the way we would a murder. We look for fingerprints and footprints."

For instance, on one occasion, the Green Police identified an abandoned trailer loaded with DDT, volatile substances, carcinogens and corrosives, all of which had leaked from their containers and corroded the trailer floor. They realised that the trailer was from an area close by since it still had cobwebs on the wheels. By painstakingly checking all the parking lots in the city, they zeroed in on one which had its gravel stained by the same green substance that they had discovered in the trailer. The whole case took both time and money -- half a million US dollars or thereabouts. But they cracked it all the same.

Flushing out environmental criminals involves thorough criminal investigation and careful clinical analysis of samples of toxic wastes. Only when this is done does the Green Police strike. Search warrants are issued, on-the-spot testing of industrial wastes is carried out and then the guilty persons are arrested if necessary.

However, the Green Police is not just another group of American vigilantes. They are officially backed by the New Jersey state machinery. They are legally empowered to produce search warrants and arrest people. They also recommend penalty action and act as advisers to the state's department of environmental protection.

If results are anything to go by, the Green Police have been effective. Individuals and industries have been taken to court for environmental crimes. A doctor, who repeatedly dumped contaminated needles in a residential area, and an Israeli soldier, who poured toxic chemicals down a drain, have been arrested. In a case that came to be known as "The great river bust", a local industry was charged with dumping toxic chemicals in a neighbouring river.

But work is not always so rewarding. There's frustration too. Sometimes the state environment department declares confiscated samples non-toxic, forcing the Green Police to get permission to conduct more tests.

The stakes are obviously very high for this group. According to Trappaso, an investigator, environmental criminals "have got no respect for the land they live in. They'll leave nothing for our kids." Task Force Director Jim Lykd defends the work his unit is doing, "Toxic waste disposal should be treated like rape. It involves the violation of other people's bodies."

Lykd denies the charge that the Green Police are anti-industry. "In fact," says he, "we help industries which are environmentally-conscious to compete effectively because they monitor and prevent environmentally-unfriendly industries from cutting costs." According to Lykd, there is a definite need for criminal law to prevent dumping of wastes by industries and this should not be perceived as an anti-industry move.