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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Tom Sansonetti
Assistant Attorney General, Environment and Natural Resources Division

July 14, 2004

Tom Sansonetti

Hi, I'm Assistant Attorney General Tom Sansonetti. I'm in charge of the Environment and Natural Resources Division here at the Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Coming to Washington D.C. from the West, some of my fondest memories are of times I have spent recreating outdoors with my family and appreciating the value of our nation's natural resources.

I understand how important it is to preserve the environment for the benefit of future generations. One of the primary responsibilities of my job is to enforce the federal civil and criminal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Sometimes I also have to defend challenges to government programs and activities concerning the stewardship of public lands and the environment. Under the Bush Administration's watch, the Environment and Natural Resources Division has amassed an admirable enforcement record resulting in significant gains for public health and the well-being of all Americans.

I'm glad that I can join you today, and I'm happy to answer your questions.

Will, from Colorado writes:
Why is the Bush Administration giving a handout to industry by cutting back enforcement of our environmental laws?

Tom Sansonetti
Hi, Will! It's good to hear from a fellow Westerner. There have been many claims made that the Administration is cutting back on enforcement, but that's just not true.

Here at the Department of Justice, we've had a series of record-breaking years in environmental enforcement. In the last fiscal year, we won more than $203 million in penalties for civil violations of our environmental laws, the Environment Division's best year ever.

In Fiscal Years 2001 and 2002, we recovered a record $7.95 billion in injunctive relief, which includes new and/or improved pollution controls on factories and legal commitments by polluters to clean up the messes that they have made.

We recovered almost another $2.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2003, and this Fiscal Year is shaping up well too. We also obtained the largest civil penalty ever obtained under from a single company for violations of a federal environmental statute - $34 million - when we resolved a Clean Water Act enforcement action against Colonial Pipeline Co.

These record-breaking numbers demonstrate our commitment to strong enforcement of the environmental laws.

Billy, from VA writes:
Please continue to enforce the Clean Air Act by investingating violations of the New Source Review Why are you stopping?

Tom Sansonetti
Billy, I have good news for you-we're not stopping! In your state of Virginia, the Department of Justice had the largest Clean Air Act settlement of an enforcement matter against a utility.

Virginia Electric Power Co. agreed to spend $1.2 billion between now and 2013 to eliminate 237,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions each year from eight coal-fired electricity generating plants in Virginia and West Virginia.

We are also continuing to bring new New Source Review cases. For example, earlier this year, we filed a lawsuit against Eastern Kentucky Power Cooperative for NSR violations.

We are also actively litigating our other cases, and have dates for liability trials next year in United States and State of New York et al. v. American Electric Power Co. et al. and United States v. Cinergy Corp.

Stephanie, from Lander writes:
I'm aware that there is a record number of lawsuits DOJ is working on regarding drilling on public lands, but blaming these lawsuits on DOJ's ability to get its job done is a bit much, isn't it? If you look at the underlying reason for these lawsuits, I think you would find that environmental stewardship and a love for the environment is the foundation.

Tom Sansonetti
Hi, Stephanie! Good to hear from a fellow Wyomingite! At the present time, my division has over 7,000 active cases.

Approximately one half of those cases are enforcement cases where we are pursuing polluters and other violators of our environmental laws. The other half concern our obligation to defend the actions of virtually every federal agency when it comes to the environmental laws-these cases are non-discretionary.

Consequently, my point is that with finite resources of 400 attorneys and a $103 million dollar budget, the more defensive work that my attorneys must perform, the smaller number of enforcement cases I can bring.

William, from Big Bear Lake writes:
A couple weeks ago, an EPA Inspector General said that despite the effort to reduce air pollution at the nation's 145 oil refineries, there is no strategic plan to ensure companies are reducing their emissions as promised. You've stated that 32 percent have come into compliance -- but how do we know that's the case if there is no verification process?

Tom Sansonetti
Hi William! How's the weather in California? I'm glad you asked about our efforts to bring oil refineries into compliance with the law.

In March, 2003, Attorney General Ashcroft and I announced his priorities for civil enforcement of the environmental laws. One important priority was to level the corporate playing field so companies that do not comply with the law don't gain an advantage over those that do.

Since then, we have settled with five other refineries: Lion Oil, Coastal Oil, Cenex, Ergon, and Chevron. The total refinery capacity now under consent decrees with the United States is about 40%. We are continuing discussions with other companies, and we hope to reach 50% during the remainder of this year.

By the way, there is a verification process-all consent decrees become court orders when they are approved and are publicly available. Consequently, they are also enforceable by the Justice Department.

Reese, from Casper writes:
Mr. Sansonetti There are substantive rumors that there are vast coal deposits on the Moon. Do you believe the discovery of moon-based coal would have a negative affect on Wyoming's economy (as Wyoming is the top coal producer)?

If so, how much of your day is spent on this problem? Can I, as a Wyoming citizen, assist you in this pending crisis?

Tom Sansonetti
Dear Reese, As I gaze through my telescope at night-I wonder the same thing! Since your email obviously came from the moon, I think you are in the best position to explore such a rumor. Truth be told, we are always looking for new sources of energy-please report back!

Steve, from Oakland writes:
What is the status of the Monterrey County water company that allegedly falsified drinking water reports?

Should there be concern in other areas of the state about this type of activity?

Tom Sansonetti
Steve, I'm glad you asked about a case that we've been working hard on. Actually, in May, the Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a court order imposing the largest penalty ever against the water company you referred to.

Defendants Alisal Water Corporation and the individual owners of the water systems were ordered to pay a penalty of $500,000 for violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The case involves privately owned drinking water companies serving 28,000 consumers in Salinas and other parts of Monterey County, California. As a result of our litigation, the court previously ordered the water companies to be run under court supervision.

This year, many of the systems were placed in the hands of reputable drinking water companies as a result of the government's action. We will continue to be vigilant in protecting the drinking water of Californians and all Americans.

Dave, from Portland writes:
What was your involvement in the Exxon Valdez case?

Tom Sansonetti
Hi Dave! Shortly after the Exxon Valdez wrecked off of Alaska's coast in 1989, I became the Solicitor at the Department of Interior which played one of the lead roles in the cleanup process.

We worked with the Department of Commerce, Department of Justice, and EPA to determine the total cost of the cleanup and damage to birds, fish, and the shoreline. This suit was brought against Exxon by the United States and the state of Alaska.

The case eventually settled for $1.1 billion, which was the largest fine ever obtained by the federal government, even today. I led the negotiations and signed the settlement on behalf of the Department of Interior during George H. W. Bush's administration.

Mike, from Washington DC writes:
Would you say the administration is content with its "sue and settle" approach to environmental enforcement?

Tom Sansonetti
Mike, I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "sue and settle" approach. My job is to secure the best results the government can to protect public heath and the environment.

Often, I do, indeed, take large cases to trial to achieve those results. For example, my attorneys took two very significant cases to trial against power plant operators (Ohio Edison and Illinois Power) under the Clean Air Act.

Although we have to be fully prepared to litigate, it makes good sense to settle where we can obtain relief which is at least as good as the relief we could obtain through litigation.

An excellent example is the Colonial Pipeline Clean Water Act case, where we settled on the eve of trial and obtained a civil penalty of $34 million (the largest civil penalty ever under an environmental statute) and also imposed obligations on Colonial to continually maintain and monitor the integrity of its entire 5500 mile pipeline, which I mentioned in an earlier answer.

Brian, from Laramie writes:
Are you going to run for office in Wyoming?

Tom Sansonetti
Hi, Brian! How are the Cowpokes going to do in football this year? Fortunately, Wyoming is currently being served by a great Congressional delegation who will likely be in office for many years to come. Frankly, I am enjoying my current post in public service serving two men whom I greatly admire-President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Larry, from Orlando writes:
I wish the Department of Justice would spend their time tracking down real criminals. Earlier this year you prosecuted a Florida man for bringing a

flower from Peru into the U.S. because the flower was an endangered plant. I think taxpayer monies could be better spent on going after terrorists rather than gardeners.

Tom Sansonetti
Hi Larry! Regarding criminal enforcement of the environmental laws, the Attorney General has stated repeatedly that all those who violate these laws are on notice that the Department of Justice will not hesitate to seek criminal sentences where appropriate.

One of the areas in which we are moving forward aggressively is our Hazmat Initiative that the Attorney General announced in fall 2003. Illegal transportation of hazardous materials (or "hazmat") can have potentially serious consequences for human health as well as the environment. We have thus targeted violators of the hazmat laws.

For example, Emery Worldwide Airlines was the defendant in a major hazmat case in which it pled guilty to 12 felony violations of the hazmat laws; it paid a criminal fine of $6 million. With regard to your question about the orchid smuggling case, many people are not aware that smuggling of endangered species is one of the most lucrative forms of criminal trafficking after drugs and arms.

We take seriously our responsibilities to protect endangered species both here at home and under international treaties such as in the case you referred to.

John, from Finland writes:
What environmental enforcement. President Bush slashed the budget for it, so how can you properly enforce anything?

Tom Sansonetti
Hi, John! Must be about dinner time in Finland. Actually, President Bush has not slashed the budget for my Division. My 2004 budget is up 10% from 2003. His proposal for my 2005 budget, if approved by Congress, would result in another 20% boost. The more resources I have, the more polluters I can pursue in court. Although you may not know it, even with our current level of resources, our Division has obtained record results in virtually ever category. Nakemiin!

Tom Sansonetti
Thanks everybody for your wonderful questions. I'm sorry there wasn't more time in today's session to get to everyone's e-mails. Hope you'll participate in next week's "Ask the White House"! Happy Trails, Tom!

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