Tough on Crime Policy Nabs Enviro-Thug

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Politicians complain that the media never give them credit when programs work. Is President Clinton's "get tough on crime" policy finally paying dividends?

The Environmental Protection Agency has successfully extradited an environmental terrorist. What was this villain's heinous crime? Exterminating an endangered species that had the potential to cure cancer? No. Spewing a cloud of toxic smog into the air, wiping out an adjacent community? No. His alleged crime - FREON smuggling! Yes, that's right, the EPA can boast of its first ever extradition of a Freon mobster.

Bruce Burrell was nabbed in Costa Rica and returned to Florida, where he had been indicted for more than 70 violations of federal law in relation to his smuggling activities. His alleged crimes included smuggling, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, money laundering, tax evasion and violations of the Clean Air Act. Burrell's arrest and extradition caps a lengthy investigation involving U.S. Marshalls, U.S. Customs, the IRS, INTERPOL and Costa Rican authorities. If he and his co-defendant Kersi Raja are convicted on all charges, they face up to a maximum of 700 years in prison and more than $28 million in fines - a sentence greater than the vast majority of murderers receive for their crimes.

Freon made modern refrigeration and air-conditioning possible. Modern refrigeration improved human health by making it possible to store food longer before it went bad. For all of the human history food spoilage had been the bane of human existence (millions of people in countries without adequate refrigeration still die from food-borne disease). In the industrial world, Freon ended that problem.

Freon had the added advantage of being non-toxic, largely inflammable and long-lasting. The inventor of Freon received a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Sounds pretty good, right?

Not so, according to environmentalists, misinformed politicians and some scientists. According to them, there is a dark side to Freon (beyond the obvious problem that it made the South habitable for Yankees as well as natives). Freon was released into the atmosphere when refrigerators and air conditioners were repaired and when they leaked. In laboratory tests, Freon broke up ozone molecules. Ozone in the upper atmosphere blocks the sun's potentially deadly UV rays. Increased amounts of UV rays could increase the number of cases of skin cancer and damage wildlife.

Based on these tests, the presence of increasing amounts of Freon in the atmosphere, a theory of Freon circulation and the discovery of a seasonal thinning of the ozone layer over the Antarctic, environmentalists successfully lobbied for a ban on manufacture and future use of Freon. There is no doubt that the facts and the predicted effects were a cause for concern and further study, but they did not merit the panic and resulting legislative ban.

Many scientists have argued that the thinning of the ozone layer over the Antarctic is a natural occurrence, perhaps related to increasing solar activity. Others have argued that the threat posed by increased UV rays to wildlife was dramatically overstated. Still other scientists have pointed out that, if ozone depletion were to occur, the increased threat of skin cancer would be the equivalent of moving 60 miles to 120 miles closer to the equator. Few people would refuse to take a job 120 miles to the South based upon an increased risk of skin cancer.

The economic cost of the ban could top $100 billion over the next ten years. Sadly, the costs in terms of human life could also be quite high, since most Freon substitutes are toxic or highly flammable. Notably, the ban does not apply to developing countries (where black-market Freon originates).

As the arrest, extradition and prosecution of Mr. Burrell and Mr. Raja indicate, there are other, indirect costs to banning Freon. When the public desires a product for which there are no good substitutes and that product is then banned, the price goes up and black market entrepreneurs arise to meet the demand. In 1987, anyone could buy a can of Freon for $1. Now it sells for between $15 and $30 a can, and the price is expected to rise. In the future, will we be discussing how to win the "War on Freon?"

What we can predict is that at a time when the public's concern about violent crime is at an all time high, and fiscal restraint is a political necessity, scarce dollars that could be used to prevent, investigate and prosecute rapes, murders and juvenile crime will be increasingly diverted to catching Freon mobsters. Tax evasion, tampering with witnesses, money laundering and smuggling are crimes that merit arrest and prosecution. Few people would advocate Mr. Burrell's actions. However, this case hardly represents a wise use of scarce crime fighting resources. More importantly, this is not what the public thought the Clinton administration meant when it said it was going to take back the streets and get tough on crime.

This appeared in the Viewpoints section of The Dallas Morning News, August 19, 1996.