Civil lawsuits may be a dime a dozen, but with criminal indictments — especially of corporations — it’s another story.
The recent decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to file criminal charges against the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative for alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a step rarely taken in enforcing those laws.
The 22-page indictment [pdf] handed down May 19 includes 19 different counts for knowingly taking — a term that includes harassing, harming, wounding and killing — dozens of Newell’s shearwaters, an endangered seabird found only in Hawaii, as well as Laysan albatrosses, between 2005 and 2009.
“It doesn’t happen very often considering how many birds there are and how many utilities there are,” said David Bouchard, chair of the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee. “I can think of three others in 20 years.”
APLIC is a national trade association that was started informally in the 1970s as a cooperative effort between biologists, regulatory agencies, conservation agencies and electric utilities themselves to look at why birds fly into power lines and how that can be prevented.
Typically, criminal charges in environmental cases in Hawaii involve single individuals who violate a law. For example, a lone gunman was convicted in 2009 after he intentionally shot and killed an endangered Hawaiian monk seal on Kauai. It is uncommon for corporations to be charged criminally. Even as the worst oil spill in U.S. history unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, it took the federal government almost six weeks to even bring up the possibility that British Petroleum could face criminal charges.
Yet in Hawaii, the Department of Justice has made a federal criminal case out of the failure of Kauai’s only electric to complete a habitat …