What is an Environmental Crime?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Environmental crime is generally defined as crime which is committed against the environment. Most law enforcement agencies break environmental crime down into two categories: pollution and threats to endangered species. Growing awareness of environmental issues led to a crackdown on environmental crime in many nations during the twentieth century, and major law enforcement agencies take environmental crime very seriously. Not only does it harm the environment, but it often has an impact on the economy and on general quality of life as well.

Air pollution from a factory.
Air pollution from a factory.

When environmental crime is committed, it is not generally out of a desire to destroy the environment, although it has the end effect of causing environmental damage. In the case of pollution, environmental crime can take the form of dumping toxic material, failing to secure toxins correctly, or inadvertent leakage of toxins into the natural environment, among other things. As a result of the release of toxins, air, land, or soil are polluted. In some cases, pollution may directly cause death or serious environmental harm, as is the case when chemical spills cause health problems in small communities or kill off animal populations. The impact of pollution may also be more subtle and long lasting, as was seen with the chemical DDT, which did not always kill animals outright, but did contribute to the decline of many animal populations.

Carelessness that leads to an oil spill might be considered an environmental crime.
Carelessness that leads to an oil spill might be considered an environmental crime.

Pollution is tightly regulated in most nations. Many countries have government agencies which are specifically in place to fight pollution by helping to set and enforce laws. In the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is involved in a wide range of pollution-fighting campaigns which include things like providing grant money to clean up contaminated sites and regulating emissions. Several international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol have also been put in place to try and put a stop to global pollution.

In the case of endangered species, criminals can commit crimes directly by slaughtering endangered animals, or they may cause damage to their habitats, resulting in population pressure which puts these animals in danger. By international agreement, most nations severely prosecute slaughter and any sort of dealing in endangered species, except in the case of zoological parks and breeding programs which are trying to save these animals. Damage to habitat is an environmental crime which is more difficult to prosecute and regulate in some cases, since it often involves the conflicting interests of companies and the endangered species in question.

Fighting environmental crime is important, because it helps to ensure that there will still be an environment for future generations to enjoy. Some activists also argue that humans are responsible for ensuring that the Earth is a safe and wholesome place for animals and plants to live, since all forms of life are interconnected.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Your mention of a forest fire presenting a real danger to humans brings up a good point. Most environmental laws are made with the intent of benefiting humans, too. Oddly, they are not often viewed in that context.


Environmental crimes can be extremely dangerous. Take, for example, littering. If someone chunks a beer can out of a car, that has a fairly minimal impact on the environment. Throw a smoldering cigarette but out of a car when conditions are dry and the wind is high, and you might have a forest fire on your hands.

Not only does that have a significant environmental impact, it can result in the deaths of people in the path of the fire.

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