The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced the launch of a new Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force. The DOJ’s announcement, on May 11, 2023, coincided with its announcement of the grand jury indictments of two individuals in Puerto Rico who are accused of committing environmental crimes between 2020 and 2022.
As noted by the DOJ, its formation of the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force also comes one year after the Department’s formation of an Office of Environmental Justice within its Environment and Natural Resources Division. This suggests that the DOJ is engaging in a long-term strategy to combat environmental crime, with particular emphasis on combating environmental crime in Puerto Rico and the USVI.
For companies and individuals doing business in Puerto Rico and the USVI, this is cause for concern. Even compliance won’t necessarily prevent an investigation; and, in the event of an investigation, insufficient documentation of compliance can present risks regardless of the underlying facts at hand. As a result, companies and individuals doing business on the islands need to prioritize environmental compliance (and adequately documenting their compliance), and they need to have strategies in place to deal effectively with the DOJ’s Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force if necessary.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. By announcing the formation of its new task force on the same date that it announced two grand jury indictments, it is also sending a clear message that it will not hesitate to pursue criminal charges when warranted.
The DOJ’s Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force: An Overview
To be prepared to deal with the DOJ’s Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force, companies and individuals doing business on the islands need to have a clear understanding of the task force’s composition and law enforcement priorities. Here is an overview of what we know so far:
Federal Agencies with Personnel on the DOJ’s Task Force
While the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force falls under the DOJ’s law enforcement umbrella, it includes personnel from several federal agencies. Each of these agencies is likely to have its own set of enforcement priorities—setting the stage for wide-ranging investigations in Puerto Rico and the USVI.
As identified by the DOJ, the federal agencies with personnel on the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force include:
- Army Criminal Investigation Division (Army CID)
- Army Corps of Engineers
- Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General (DOA OIG)
- Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General (DOC OIG)
- Department of Homeland Security Homeland Security Investigations (DHS HSI)
- Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT OIG)
- Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division (EPA CID)
- Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General (EPA OIG)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations (FDA OCI)
- Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General (HUD OIG)
- IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS CI)
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement (NOAA OLE)
- U.S. Coast Guard – Sector San Juan (USCG San Juan)
- U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service (USCG IS)
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
The DOJ’s press release announcing the formation of the task force also notes that its personnel will work closely with local authorities on both islands. This includes the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources, Puerto Rico Department of Justice, U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General’s Office.
The Task Force’s Enforcement Priorities in Puerto Rico and the USVI
The DOJ’s press release also identifies several areas of enforcement that are priorities for the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Environmental Crimes Task Force. As of the date of its launch, the task force’s priorities will include:
- Air and water quality violations involving agriculture, construction, transportation, and other industries
- Fraud, waste, and abuse affecting government programs (including, but not limited to, EPA programs)
- Harm to wetlands, navigable waters, and wildlife (including harm caused by pesticide misuse)
- Hazardous material spills and transportation violations
- Marine environmental violations and harm to federal marine resources
- Public corruption involving environmental compliance and risks
- Violations involving medications, foods, cosmetics, and other biological products
- Violations involving workplace and housing conditions affecting residents working in the islands’ protected environments
As you can see, not all of these violations are strictly related to environmental compliance. This reflects the task force’s composition as well as the DOJ’s general disposition to investigate and prosecute all crimes, regardless of the impetus for a particular inquiry. Environmental crime investigations in Puerto Rico and the USVI will present risks for conspiracy, money laundering, tax evasion, wire fraud, and other federal criminal charges as well—and targeted companies and individuals could potentially face these charges even if they are ultimately cleared of any alleged environmental law violations.