The environmental community cheered loudly this week following a ruling from a federal judge against a company that has roots on Long Island.
The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. found itself with over $4 million in fines after pleading guilty to a number of criminal acts involving the illegal application of insecticides to wild bird seed, which was knowingly toxic to birds. Scotts, which is the world’s largest marketer of residential pesticides, also now holds the title of being the company hit with the largest fine in history under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
In the same week, in a separate civil agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scotts agreed to pay more than $6 million in penalties and spend $2 million on environmental projects to resolves additional civil pesticide violations. The violations include distributing or selling unregistered, canceled or misbranded pesticides, including products with inadequate warnings or cautions. This agreement also names Scotts as the company with the largest civil settlement under FIFRA to date.
Although the company has recognized and taken responsibility for their illegal and irresponsible acts, in my opinion, these precedent setting rulings are long overdue and more than warranted. The damage done by their careless acts cannot be reversed. For a company that had over $2.84 billion in sales last year, it’s easy to imagine that the legal loss itself hurt more than the $12 million in fines did. The ruling served as a warning to Scotts and many other large corporations that they are not above the law and are not exempt from penalties.
Scotts isn’t the only company in the history of the U.S. that has knowingly caused damage to wildlife and the environment, but from now on it will surely be the poster child of what not to do. How many times can giant corporations get away with polluting the environment for being lazy or squeezing a buck? Whether by accident, or due to a rogue employee, lax oversight, carelessness or greed, companies need to be held responsible and pay for the damage done by their hand.
I hope Scotts has learned a lot from this four-year ordeal, but more so, I hope that hundreds of others are watching them and re-thinking their own policies. Every company should be looking closely at their practices to ensure that they are following the law and protecting the environment and with this lesson, taking greater precautions and casting larger safety nets than they had before. After all, the cheapest form of dealing with pollution is always through prevention.
I would be remiss if I didn’t link the ironic fact that this historic case of private industry vs. the federal government comes at a time when many elected officials and candidates are calling for a deregulation of industry and decentralization of federal environmental oversight. I can’t help but wonder about how this ruling may have been different if it were in the hands of a state court as compared to a federal court. Or even worse, if environmental regulation were done away with all together. Would a state court have had the staff, expertise and necessary proof, to come to this ruling against such a powerful and resourceful company that not only operates across state lines, but around the world? I would have to speculate that even if it did, it would have taken more than four years to close this case, especially if it were in New York where the number of DEC staff are at an all-time low.
This may have been a hard lesson for private companies across the country, but government has just as much to learn here too. Whether it comes to harmful chemicals, or energy issues, our state and federal elected leaders need to recognize and act on the fact that pollution prevention (and the proper staffing to do so) is the safest and cheapest way to protect public health, the environment and the economy.