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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Corporate Crime

The consequences of letting polluters police themselves

by Carl Pope

Locks are the price honest people pay for thieves," says the old adage. Most of us spend more on safeguarding our property than we ever suffer in actual losses. Why? Because we know that thieves are indeed among us, and that without security measures, our costs could be far greater.

Unfortunately, this commonsense approach is not shared by the U.S. Forest Service. For years, environmentalists and agency whistleblowers have documented timber theft on the national forests that costs taxpayers $100 million a year. Yet in 1995, the Forest Service unaccountably decided to disband its Timber Theft Investigative Branch. In addition, the Agriculture Department's inspector general recently investigated 12 Forest Service timber sales-and found that all 12 had been conducted illegally. The environmental assessments the Forest Service used to justify the logging, according to the inspector general, contained "numerous serious deficiencies," such as ignoring hundreds of threatened or endangered species that might be affected.

To his credit, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck is taking corrective steps. But detailed information about timber theft and other crimes on the national forests has been available for years; the problem is that law and order simply hasn't been a priority.

In fact, it's not very fashionable these days to point the finger at environmental criminals, or even to propose that we protect ourselves through rules and regulations. Instead, Vice President Al Gore, the Western Governors' Association, corporate PR machines, newspaper pundits, academics, and even some environmental organizations are all bashing the laws they call "command and control" (as though there were something undemocratic about setting legal standards). These regulations, they complain, are inflexible, costly, confrontational, and therefore ineffective.

To "reinvent environmental protection," they say, we must inevitably yield to a new generation of supple, "win/win" solutions. These include community collaboratives with extractive industries (like the Quincy Library Group plan in California's Sierra Nevada), emission-trading schemes, and secret self-audits, where companies examine their own environmental performance and then get to police the results. These strategies will supposedly put the American environmental consensus to work more rapidly and at a lower cost. "No more locks, no more cops" could be the slogan for the promoters of this brave new world, where technology and innovation open up a green frontier.

A good place for this to happen might have been the trucking industry. About a decade ago, computer chips made it possible for diesel-engine manufacturers-solid, mainstream companies like Detroit Diesel, Cummings Engine, and Volvo-to precisely control the fuel/air ratio and combustion timing of their engines. At the time, the tough federal standards for nitrogen oxide emissions were based on engine performance, leaving companies free to select the best technology to control pollution at the lowest cost-a model of the sort of regulation the win/win crowd likes to see. Instead of the heavy hand of government telling companies how to make a better diesel engine, all the manufacturers had to do was submit an engine that could pass the EPA's test, which analyzed emissions through start and stop, acceleration on hills, and highway driving. The test cycle ran the engine for 50 miles at highway speeds.

So what did the companies do with their powerful new technologies and flexible regulations? Every one of them programmed their engines' computer chips so that after 50 miles at highway speeds, the pollution-control system turned off, allowing the engine to operate dirtier but perform better. The engines passed the EPA's test, but once on the road operated with no pollution controls at all. As a result, trucks sold in the last decade emit up to 300 percent more nitrogen oxides than allowed. Instead of using the combination of new technology and a performance standard to control pollution at lower cost, the companies simply cheated.

The EPA caught the companies but is allowing more than a million polluting trucks to remain on the road. It turns out that they don't operate very well with the pollution-control system turned back on, and forcing them into poorer but cleaner performance is deemed unfair to their owners, who were unaware of the fraud. Instead, the public will suffer enormous health costs for years to come.

Self-policing doesn't work for the service industry either. Look at Royal Caribbean Cruises, the world's second-largest cruise line. Trying to cut costs and improve profits, it gave employees incentives to bypass wastewater-treatment systems and then to falsify the logs to show they'd been used. When the U.S. Coast Guard caught Royal Caribbean, the company tried to assert that as a non-U.S.-flag line it was exempt from U.S. environmental laws. In 1998, the company was fined $9 million. Caught again last year doing the same thing, the company may be fined an additional $1.5 million.

Given the opportunity to cheat on environmental standards, some people do, and others will follow. (Mercedes told the EPA that if its competitors circumvented the diesel-emissions test it would have to follow suit-and it did.) Absent enforcement, even firms as sensitive to their public image as Royal Caribbean will try to save money at the cost of polluting the environment.

Consistent, strictly enforced standards are the locks that protect our environment. Voluntary measures and self-policing sound appealing, but they aren't enough to keep law and order on the environmental frontier.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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