Ashcroft Promises Increased Enforcement
by John Heilprin, Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday he plans to crack down on companies that fall short of doing all they can to protect against possible environment-damaging terrorist attacks on pipelines, storage tanks, transportation networks, and industrial plants.
Emphasizing homeland security as an environmental issue, Ashcroft pledged to increase the Justice Department's prosecution of civil cases to make operators of pipelines, fuel storage tanks, chemical plants, and drinking water facilities comply with environmental and safety laws.
He said that means going to court to ensure pipelines do not leak or explode; that hazardous wastes and chemicals are properly stored, treated, and disposed of; that water supplies are protected; and that each facility develop emergency response plans. He said the department also will seek criminal penalties when appropriate.
"These laws do more than just protect the health and safety of our citizens," Ashcroft told reporters gathered in his office. "Compliance with and enforcement of these laws makes a real difference in our level of national preparedness."
Ashcroft said his civil enforcement priorities for the department's Environment and Natural Resources Division also include ensuring that companies breaking environmental laws do not gain an unfair economic advantage over those that are law-abiding. To do that, companies should be forced to pay a premium for any delay in paying penalties, said Ashcroft and Tom Sansonetti, the assistant attorney general who heads the division.
During the last months of the Clinton administration and the first year-and-a-half of the Bush administration, the Justice Department secured record cleanup and compliance commitments by enforcing clean air, water, and hazardous waste laws, Ashcroft said.
In the fiscal year ending last October, some $3.6 billion was collected or promised, according to Justice Department figures. For the prior fiscal year, which included the last three-and-a-half months of the Clinton presidency, the amount was $4.3 billion, the highest ever, the department said. For the last full fiscal year of the Clinton presidency, compliance payments and commitments totaled $2.7 billion.
Ashcroft and Sansonetti announced a nearly $23 million agreement with an Arkansas oil refiner to reduce its air pollution. Lion Oil Co. agreed in the settlement with the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state of Arkansas to reduce emissions of several pollutants that contribute to smog, acid rain, and asthma at its El Dorado, Ark., refinery.
The settlement entered in U.S. District Court in Fort Smith, Ark., calls for Lion to spend more than $21.5 million on pollution control technology, pay a $348,000 civil penalty, and spend $450,000 on additional projects to reduce emissions from the refinery. Sansonetti said the settlement shows his division's "commitment to level the corporate playing field" and that he expects to reach more of them soon with other companies.
Justice Department officials said they also received $150 million in commitments last month for cleaning up Superfund toxic waste sites around the nation.
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