Bauer Business Focus

Mark Farley on Environmental Disasters and Corporate Liability

Companies are increasingly facing criminal charges over environmental accidents. That’s making it more difficult to get individuals to work with government investigators, both in finding the causes of such accidents and preventing their recurrence.

The past few weeks have brought a massive toxic waste spill into a Colorado river, a chemical plant fire in Conroe, and criminal charges against a Houston oil drilling company over a November 2012 explosion. Attorney Mark Farley heads the workplace safety group at Katten. He joins Andrew Schneider on this week’s installment of the “Bauer Business Focus.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Are accidents like these becoming more frequent, and if so why?

“I don’t know that the frequency of the events is changing Andrew, as much as the public perception and awareness of these types of high-profile accidents is increasing. Part of it has to do with the success, I think the U.S. has seen in terms of environmental protection generally, and so these high-profile incidents where there are significant events like a fire, or an explosion, or a toxic release really garners the public and the media’s attention in a way that it has not in the past.”

How common is it for accidents like these to lead to criminal charges?

“We’re now seeing an increasing criminalization of major accidents…individuals and organizations can face criminal liability for simple negligence.”

What are the downsides of companies facing criminal, rather than civil investigations for environmental accidents that may have more to do with carelessness than a deliberate effort to break the law?

“If everybody becomes worried about a criminal investigator showing up at their door or a prosecutor or getting a grand jury subpoena, people who have key information that would be part of learning what went wrong and what needs to be done in the future to prevent it from happening again are going to become reluctant to cooperate with investigation teams.”

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Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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