After years of neglect, an old warehouse in downtown Pottstown, Pa., had become an indoor dump crammed with aging and deteriorating chemicals that threatened the environment and safety of local citizens. “Floor to ceiling: flammables, carcinogens, heavy metals” was how the Pottstown fire chief described Pyramid Chemical Co.’s warehouse adjacent to a hotel and a community college. Federal environmental officials put it this way: “Thousands of containers of chemicals, some stacked on top of each other, with incompatible chemicals, including flammable and poisonous chemicals, stored together. Some of the containers were rusted and corroded metal drums, and others were damaged, crushed or torn.” Even more despicable than the deteriorating warehouse and its contents was the deliberate scheme by the owner, sixty-five-year-old Joel Udell, to delay cleaning up the warehouse while having others pay to get rid of his unusable chemicals. However, thanks to the dogged efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and one of its attorneys, Martin Harrell, Udell was brought to justice and forced to clean up his act.
In early 2000, after two years of administrative and civil efforts to get Udell to repair and empty the warehouse, local and state agencies asked EPA’s Superfund program in Philadelphia to force Udell to take action. Udell finally started moving chemicals out in the summer of 2000, even disposing of some legitimately, but he also cut corners to minimize his costs. He “sold” thousands of pounds of unusable chemicals to unsuspecting companies across the United States at pennies on the dollar simply to get them out of Pottstown. In addition, he arranged to ship 29 forty-foot-long containers—roughly 300 tons of various chemicals—by freighter to an alleged buyer in Nigeria via the Netherlands without telling anyone. Upon discovering that some of the containers were leaking when they arrived in Rotterdam and being unable to locate the purported Nigerian buyer, the Dutch government—in accordance with international law—refused to allow the cargo to proceed.
When Udell failed to retrieve the chemicals, they sat at the port in Rotterdam for three years while Dutch authorities sought assistance from the EPA Administrator to either dispose of the chemicals or return them to the United States. While civil EPA staff took administrative enforcement action, which Udell ignored, EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division and the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the shipments and the unsafe storage site in Pottstown.
The criminal investigation ultimately involved more than 40 witnesses in the United States and abroad, and thousands of pages of documents. It also required close coordination among American, Dutch and Nigerian agencies, including joint EPA-Dutch sampling of the chemicals in Rotterdam. The combined civil and criminal federal response led to the removal of more than 600 fifty-five gallon drums of hazardous waste, plus other waste, from the warehouse, and the incineration of more than 300 tons of chemicals in the Netherlands.
Martin Harrell, an EPA criminal enforcement attorney, led the prosecution team after being appointed as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia. In late 2005, he obtained guilty pleas by Udell, Pyramid Chemical and another Udell subsidiary to 15 counts of illegally storing, transporting and exporting hazardous waste in the United States and overseas. On February 14, 2006, a federal judge sentenced the defendants to pay more than $2 million in restitution and fines, with most of the money going to Dutch authorities to repay them for the storage and incineration of the chemicals dumped on them. Udell was also ordered to perform 500 hours of community service in Pottstown, and placed on home confinement for six months.
Martin Harrell was an ideal candidate to handle this multi-jurisdictional, international case, as he is one of EPA’s leading exporters of American know-how when it comes to criminal enforcement of environmental laws. As part of a multi-agency, international team since 2000, he has developed curricula and taught environmental law enforcement to police, prosecutors and regulators in seven emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and in South Africa. His efforts have helped multiple nations learn the fundamentals of using criminal enforcement to improve environmental regulation and compliance.
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