MAJOR ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINATION CASE CONCLUDES
The Federal investigation of Hanlin Group, Inc. and its now closed Brunswick, Georgia, chemical plant ended June 2 with the sentencing of two high-ranking company officials convicted in January in connection with the mercury contamination of that state's coastal waters. The probe, which was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, resulted in a key prosecution for illegal take under the Endangered Species Act.
"This investigation shows the collective commitment of the Federal law enforcement community to protecting a healthy environment for people and wildlife," said Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark. "Those who poison the Nation's waters will be held accountable for ignoring laws that safeguard natural resources and human health."
The case, which was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Georgia, already produced a guilty plea last year from Hanlin Group, Inc. The New Jersey-based corporation acknowledged that it had committed conspiracy and violated four Federal environmental protection laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, at its LCP Chemicals operation in Georgia.
"This case should send a strong warning to any company or individual who pollutes our lands and waters, harming America's fish and wildlife, that we will strongly enforce our Federal natural resources laws," said Sam D. Hamilton, the Service's Southeast Regional Director. "It should also help Americans understand that, by taking good care of our wildlife, which often are the first injured or killed by contaminants, we can make a better environment for ourselves and our children."
A top-level corporate executive and the former manager of the LCP plant, who were found guilty of conspiracy, violating water protection and hazardous waste disposal laws, and endangering workers, were sentenced by the U.S. District Court in Brunswick to prison terms of 9 and 6 1/2 years, respectively. Each will also serve 2 years of supervised release and the corporate executive was fined $20,000. The judge decided to delay sentencing of a third defendant, who formerly served as the company's chief financial officer and chief executive officer. Although an Endangered Species Act charge against these individuals was dismissed, two lower-level LCP officials, including the plant's environmental officer, previously pleaded guilty to violating this wildlife protection law and other environmental statutes.
During the Federal probe of the company and its officers, Service and EPA special agents compiled evidence showing that, from the mid-1980s until its closure in 1994, the LCP plant discharged nearly 150 tons of mercury into Purvis Creek, a tributary of the Turtle River, and the surrounding tidal marshes. Mercury, a highly toxic metal that accumulates easily in the food chain, causes neurological damage in humans at even low concentrations.
The LCP facility had been declared a Superfund site when it closed in 1994 and was already under scrutiny by EPA when Service biologists discovered mercury poisoning in endangered wood storks on St. Simon's Island, one of Georgia's famed "Golden Isles"--a popular travel destination known for its luxury resorts and scenic beauty. Fish, shellfish, crabs, and shrimps taken in coastal waters as well as other bird species also contained the toxic metal. The Service traced the source of the contamination to the LCP plant and documented the extent of the damage to wildlife resources--an effort that resulted in the addition of Endangered Species Act charges to those that would be brought against Hanlin and its officers.
Agency studies concluded that mercury levels detected in the wood stork population had disrupted the normal breeding patterns of these large, long-legged wading birds--an impairment that constitutes an illegal "take" under the Endangered Species Act. Wood storks, which feed upon small fish, have been protected as endangered under that law since 1984; only about 5,000 pairs breed each year.
The contamination of Purvis Creek, the Turtle River, and associated marshes prompted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to issue health advisories last September warning against consumption of seafood from these waters.
"The issues we deal with in protecting endangered species are issues that concern all of us. Threats to wildlife are threats to the environment and to people," said Clark.
Hanlin Group, Inc., through its LCP subsidiary, could have been fined as much as $3.5 million for its culpability. In April, however, the U.S. District Court judge in Brunswick who presided over the case declined to sentence the company because LCP is engaged in bankruptcy proceedings and any financial penalty would come at the expense of its creditors.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management offices, and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.
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Release #: n99-033