In March of 2021, more than 300 enforcement agencies from 67 countries joined forces in the largest-ever global operation against marine pollution. In all, they performed more than 38,000 inspections, uncovered more than 5,600 offenses and cracked down on nearly 1,275 violators for dumping everything from hazardous waste to plastics and oil into the seas, inland waterways, coastal areas and ports.
This huge joint operation conducted under the auspices of INTERPOL was orchestrated by Joseph Poux Jr., a Justice Department attorney who, five years ago, activated what had been a moribund Pollution Crime Working Group within the international police organization. Since 2017, Poux’s group has organized three global operations targeting marine pollution and a fourth targeting illegal hazardous waste trafficking and dumping that have resulted in millions of dollars in criminal fines and the prosecution of countless violators.
“Joe Poux brought together multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies from around the world to take concrete steps to address transnational pollution crime, a global problem that has never been given the priority it deserves,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim. “His contributions combating environmental crime are genuinely remarkable.”
While the marine operations uncovered typical forms of pollution crime, they recently also tackled trends that have been growing amid the pandemic, opening 13 criminal cases involving medical waste. The operation also exposed a major criminal network involved in dumping European plastic waste in Asia, with 22 suspects arrested.
“The significance of Joe’s contribution to the reduction of environmental crime domestically and internationally cannot be overstated,” said Jessica Taylor, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division. “His tireless efforts in bringing various groups of law enforcement, nongovernmental organizations, business and governmental entities together has had specific tangible results.”
Although the working group had not conducted any activity for almost a decade, Poux worked behind the scenes to assemble an international network of agents and prosecutors who are now orchestrating regular global law enforcement operations.
The first joint initiative in 2017, known as Operation 30 Days of Action, was the largest global enforcement activity ever against hazardous waste crime, resulting in cases against 483 individuals and 264 companies and detection of more than 1.5 million tons of illegal waste.
The second, Operation 30 Days at Sea in October 2018, comprised 276 law enforcement, maritime and environmental agencies from 58 countries. The 5,000 vessel inspections uncovered over 500 offenses. Next came 30 Days at Sea 2.0 in October 2019, involving 62 countries that through 17,000 inspections discovered more than 3,000 offenses. And most recently, Operation 30 Days at Sea 3.0 held in March 2021 involved a record 67 countries and uncovered more than 5,600 violations.
The operations raised awareness, clamped down on pollution crimes globally and benefited the United States in a variety of ways.
For example, while preparing to conduct the global operations, Poux discovered an enforcement gap that allowed powerful Mexican pesticides, illegal for use in the U.S., to be smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border for growing marijuana on public lands. Poux created a task force whose work, so far, has led to charges against more than 50 defendants for environmental crimes.
To win convictions in the U.S. for the environmental crimes, prosecutors work with the EPA, and Poux has advanced those efforts.
“Joe has provided the tools for criminal investigators to prosecute bad guys,” the EPA’s Taylor said. “We work closely with him and his team to investigate federal environmental violations nationwide. Joe serves as the connectivity point between the law enforcement and the prosecution teams.”
Back in 2007, Poux was put in charge of supervising the department’s environmental crimes section’s vessel pollution program. He crafted charging and sentencing theories that underlie a program so successful that, to date, it has resulted in the convictions of 145 companies, $480 million in criminal fines, 320 months of incarceration time for violators and 1,500 vessels under court-ordered environmental compliance plans.
Along the way, Poux built a valuable relationship between Justice and the Coast Guard, said Deborah Harris, chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section.
“Then when the INTERPOL work happened, Joe brought in the Coast Guard and now there is a Coast Guard member on the Pollution Crime Working Group, and some of the other international working groups now also have Coast Guard members,” Harris said. “Joe is a force multiplier in that way.”
Harris added that Poux has been “effective at getting resources, marshaling those resources and then directing them with a clear mission.”
Poux said his work with INTERPOL has enabled him to expand the reach of environmental protection and enforcement internationally, and has resulted in bringing a substantial number of environmental criminals to justice.
“People die because of many of these violations of our national and international environmental laws,” Poux said. “We have so much ability to affect change, and I believe this work will have a lasting impact.”