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March 5, 2024San Diego, CA, United StatesContraband

Man charged with smuggling potent greenhouse gases into US following HSI San Diego, EPA investigation

SAN DIEGO — Michael Hart, 58, of San Diego, was arrested March 4 and charged with smuggling potent greenhouse gases into the United States from Mexico and selling them for profit, violating regulations intended to curb the use of greenhouse gases and slow climate change. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Criminal Investigation Division are investigating this case.

“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 HSI San Diego Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “We remain committed to keeping these dangerous toxins from depleting our ozone.”

The indictment alleges that Hart purchased refrigerants in Mexico and smuggled them into the United States 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 United States to include charges related to the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020, which prohibits the importation of hydrofluorocarbons, commonly used as refrigerants, without allowances issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“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 United States 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, Assistant Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s 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.”

Hart made his first appearance in federal court March 4. He was arraigned and entered a not-guilty plea. His next hearing is before U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller on March 25 at 11 a.m.

According to the EPA, hydrofluorocarbons 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 of a hydrofluorocarbon can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. The use of hydrofluorocarbons has been rapidly increasing worldwide due to the global phaseout of ozone-depleting substances and increased demand for refrigeration and air conditioning.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is a treaty adopted in 1987 and ratified by virtually every country. The Montreal Protocol required the gradual phase out of ozone depleting substances, with different timetables for developed countries like the United States, and developing countries like Mexico. In the United States, the Montreal Protocol was implemented in 1990 by an addition to the Clean Air Act, which covers Stratospheric Ozone Protection. That addition identified HCFC 22 as a regulated ozone depleting substance. Before 2020, EPA regulations that governed ozone-depleting substances made it illegal for anyone to import a regulated ozone-depleting substance in an amount exceeding that individual’s consumption allowance, subject to certain exceptions. On January 1, 2020, consumption allowances for HCFC 22 were eliminated and it became illegal to import HCFC 22 for any purpose other than for use in a process resulting in their transformation or their destruction.

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is another international agreement designed to phase down the production and consumption of greenhouse gases such as hydrofluorocarbons, which are commonly used alternatives to ozone-depleting substances and are already controlled under the Montreal Protocol. The Kigali Amendment seeks to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons by 80 to 85 percent by 2047. The AIM Act authorized the EPA to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs in a stepwise manner. As part of the AIM Act, Congress added an additional list of regulated substances, which include HFC 32, HFC-125, HFC-134, HFC-134a, HFC 143 and HFC 143a. Refrigerants marketed as HFC 404a, 407a, 407c and 410a contain these regulated substances. The listed HFCs are some of the most commonly used hydrofluorocarbons and all are saturated, meaning they have only a single bond between their atoms and therefore have longer atmospheric lifetimes. Beginning on Jan. 1, 2022, EPA regulations prohibit any person from importing bulk regulated HFCs, except by expending, at the time of import, a consumption or application-specific allowance issued by the EPA. No person may sell or distribute, or offer for sale or distribution, any regulated HFC that was imported illegally.

The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson and Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section Senior Trial Attorney Stephen DaPonte.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’ largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.