The U.S. Must Empower Environmental Whistleblowers

Environmental Whistleblowers

Earth Day stands as a testament to the relentless efforts of environmental activists, including whistleblowers, whose courage has been instrumental in exposing environmental crime. Current U.S. whistleblower laws are powerful tools for empowering these whistleblowers. These individuals are the unsung heroes in our fight to protect the planet. However, for their potential to be fully realized, these laws need to be enforced more effectively, encouraging more people to come forward.

The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) is a crucial law used to expose environmental crimes. It was enacted to implement the provisions of MARPOL. It serves as a mechanism to enforce the prevention of maritime misconduct by domestic and foreign vessels entering U.S. territory. The U.S. is the top enforcer of MARPOL due to the whistleblower provisions included in APPS, a pivotal component to uncovering misconduct.

In 2007, the Overseas Shipholding Group Inc (OSG) case illustrated the significance of whistleblowers disclosing high seas crimes that lead to successful prosecution. Twelve OSG employees reported the company’s illegal dumping of waste and sludge into U.S. maritime territory, each receiving $437,000 for providing valuable information that led to successful action against the company.

At the same time, Stephen M. Kohn, whistleblower attorney of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto and Chairman of the National Whistleblower Center, states, “Catching a ship captain for failure to keep an accurate log is like catching Al Capone for tax evasion…Whistleblowers are key to unlocking this door.”

Despite its successes, the APPS has limitations that must be addressed to increase its efficiency. The Coast Guard, which enforces APPS, needs more resources to manage reports and prosecute efficiently. A well-structured whistleblower office is essential to inform individuals of their whistleblower protections. Additionally, APPS should be updated to establish mandatory reward requirements to incentivize whistleblowers and amended to mirror existing whistleblower programs.

Similarly, whistleblower provisions in other environmental laws, like the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act, must be improved. As both share identical whistleblower provisions, neither has created a whistleblower office; as a result, whistleblowers are not adequately incentivized under these laws. At the same time, the agencies presiding over these laws have vast discretion on whistleblower rewards, the percentage of allotted awards, and confidentiality. This lack of uniformity creates a chilling effect.

As Masaki Iwasaki, an assistant professor at Seoul National University School of Law, relates, “Even in the USA (a leading country in whistleblower rewards), there is room for further use of whistleblowing environmental governance.”

Another avenue for combating environmental crimes is the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AML), which can target criminals in the profitable wildlife trafficking industry. Illegal wildlife trafficking generates over a billion dollars annually in illicit funds, which are integrated into the world economy. Whistleblowers are critical in exposing these crimes. The AML enforces whistleblower protections and rewards that incentivize individuals to report suspicious transactions associated with wildlife crimes. To counter these wildlife crimes, we need to effectively employ the existing AML laws to disrupt the threat these crimes create to the biodiversity of our ecosystems.

Environmental whistleblowers are the most effective resource in preventing crimes on our planet. Yet, limitations to their protections and incentives persist. To effectively enforce the conservation of the Earth, we must evaluate and revise current provisions while employing other laws to deter environmental crime. By safeguarding environmental whistleblowers, we can guarantee strides towards sustainability while dismantling the culprits’ line of action.

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