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USEPA unveils list of 'Most Wanted' environmental fugitives

Written By Gopal Krishna on Thursday, December 11, 2008 | 7:46 AM

In its own version of the FBI most-wanted list, and the first to focus on environmental crimes, the US Environmental Protection Agency is unveiling a roster of 23 fugitives, complete with mug shots and descriptions of the charges on its Web site at http://www.epa.gov/fugitives.

More than half a century after the FBI launched its "Most Wanted" list, the US environmental protection agency has produced an eco version. Its criminal investigation division today listed 23 fugitives accused of anything from dumping hazardous waste to importing excessively-polluting cars.

"Do not attempt to apprehend any of these individuals," warns the EPA website in red letters. Concerned citizens are invited instead to file an online Fugitive's Location form.

The list is a "brazen universe of people that are evading the law", an agency official told the Associated Press. "They are charged with environmental crimes, and should be brought before the criminal justice system and have their day in court," said the agency's Pete Rosenberg.

In the style of the notorious FBI list, epa.gov/fugitives offers unflattering mugshots of the alleged offenders. They include Larkin Baggett, owner of Chemical Consultants in Utah, who absconded after being accused of illegally disposing of hazardous waste. "Due to the large amount of weapons in his possession at the time of his arrest, he may be armed and dangerous," advises the website.

Then there are the Giordano family. Father and son, Carlos and Allesandro, fled California (the leading anti-pollutant state) accused of importing Alfa Romeos and evading the state's emissions standards; the two are thought to be in Italy.

Mauro Valenzuela is accused of transporting waste oxygen generators without proper markings on ValuJet flight 592 in 1996 which crashed into the Florida Everglades after takeoff, killing all 110 on board. Valenzuela, a mechanic with the company maintaining the aircraft, failed to appear in court on charges of conspiracy; his co-accused were acquitted.

The list comes as the agency struggles with budget cuts and a Bush administration which has sought to reduce its regulatory role; under its administrator, Stephen Johnson, it is accused of bowing to political pressure. Critics say it allowed businesses to reduce reporting of toxic waste releases, halved the number of lead monitors at industrial sites, and proposed exempting large firms from reporting harmful emissions.

This year it has begun 319 criminal inquiries, resulting in charges against 176 individuals; in 2004 it launched 425 cases. The website features mugshots of just two fugitives apprehended this year.

A top EPA enforcement official said the people on the list represent the "brazen universe of people that are evading the law." Many face years in prison and some charges could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

"They are charged with environmental crimes and they should be brought before the criminal justice system and have their day in court," said Pete Rosenberg, a director in the agency's criminal enforcement division.

On display will be John Karayannides, who allegedly helped orchestrate the dumping of 487 tons of wheat tainted with diesel fuel into the South China Sea in 1998. Karayannides is believed to have fled to Athens, Greece.

Also at large are the father and son team of Carlos and Allesandro Giordano, who were arrested in 2003 as the owners of Autodelta USA, a company that was illegally importing and selling Alfa Romeos that did not meet U.S. emission or safety standards. The two men are believed to be hiding out in Italy.

Raul Chavez-Beltran, another fugitive on the list, ran an environmental cleanup company in El Paso, Texas, that is accused of transporting hazardous waste from factories along the Mexican border and improperly disposing and storing it in the U.S. In one case, he allegedly stockpiled mercury-laced soil from an environmental spill in a warehouse.

The launch of the most-wanted list comes as EPA's criminal enforcement has ebbed. In fiscal 2008, the EPA opened 319 criminal enforcement cases, down from 425 in fiscal 2004. And criminal prosecutors charged only 176 defendants with environmental crimes, the fewest in five years.

EPA officials defend the agency's record, saying the agency has focused on bigger cases with larger environmental benefits.

But Walter D. James III, an environmental attorney based in Grapevine, Texas, says the EPA is critically understaffed to investigate environmental crimes. While the budget for the division has increased by $11 million since 2000, there are still only 185 criminal investigators. Congress authorized the EPA to hire 200 investigators in 1990.

James said that while the list could prompt the public to turn people in, he questioned whether it would deter others from committing environmental crimes.

"It's like telling John Gotti he is a bad man," James said. "Is that going to matter to John Gotti?"

Watchdogs and environmentalists hope the Obama administration will appoint a new chief; Mary Nichols, a former chair of the California air resources board, is a candidate.
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