Major greenhouse gas smuggling investigation leads to first U.S. criminal arrest

WASHINGTON – An environmental enforcement operation conducted cooperatively between Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has led to the first criminal arrest in the United States on charges of smuggling potent greenhouse gases into the U.S.

Michael Hart of San Diego, California has been arrested as part of Operation Disrupt on charges of smuggling the greenhouse gases from Mexico and then selling them for profit, in violation of regulations intended to curb the use of greenhouse gases and slow climate change.

Hart is accused of purchasing refrigerants in Mexico and smuggling them into the U.S. in his vehicle, concealed under a tarp and tools. According to the indictment, Hart posted the refrigerants for sale on OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace and other sites, and sold them for a profit. In addition to greenhouse gases, the indictment alleges Hart imported HCFC 22, an ozone-depleting substance regulated under the Clean Air Act.

This is the first prosecution in the U.S. to include charges related to the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020 (AIM Act) that prohibits the importation of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), commonly used as refrigerants, without allowances issued by the EPA.

“This case and subsequent arrest is a great example of multiple agencies collaborating to arrest an individual who allegedly smuggled illegal goods into the U.S. that harm our environment,” said Chad Plantz, special agent in charge, HSI-San Diego. “We remain committed to keeping these dangerous toxins from depleting our ozone.”

“This office is at the forefront of environmental prosecutions, and today is a significant milestone for our country,” said U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath. “This is the first time the Department of Justice is prosecuting someone for illegally importing greenhouse gases, and it will not be the last. We are using every means possible to protect our planet from the harm caused by toxic pollutants, including bringing criminal charges.”

“It is illegal to import certain refrigerants into the U.S. because of their documented and significantly greater contribution to climate change,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “We are committed to enforcing the AIM Act and other laws that seek to prevent environmental harm.”

“The illegal smuggling of hydrofluorocarbons, a highly potent greenhouse gas, undermines international efforts to combat climate change under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol,” said David M. Uhlmann, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Anyone who seeks to profit from illegal actions that worsen climate change must be held accountable. This arrest highlights the significance of EPA’s climate enforcement initiative and our efforts to prevent refrigerants that are climate super pollutants from illegally entering the United States.”

According to the EPA, HFCs are potent greenhouse gases that cause climate change and are used in applications such as refrigeration, air-conditioning, building insulation, fire extinguishing systems, and aerosols. The global warming potential (GWP) of an HFC can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. The use of HFCs has been rapidly increasing worldwide due to the global phaseout of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) and increased demand for refrigeration and air conditioning.

During his first appearance in federal court, Hart was arraigned and entered a not-guilty plea. His next hearing is scheduled for March 25. You can read more about this case here.