Corporate Crime

Article excerpt

The consequences of letting polluters police themselves

"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. …