Stacey Mitchell '89
When a BP refinery in Texas exploded in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170 more, it was the worst industrial accident in the United States in over a decade. Even under such drastic circumstances, making an international behemoth like BP accept legal responsibility for its conduct was no small task.
“In areas where environmental crimes are well handled by U.S. attorneys, we may not be called in,” said Mitchell ’89, the nation’s top prosecutor for the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section and a leader in the BP prosecution. In cases where the crime is of monumental proportions, however, “we’ll get called in, because we’re the national experts.”
And Mitchell is among the most expert of the experts in this area of law.
After a decade in Washington, Mitchell, 41, was promoted in 2007 to head the Environmental Crimes Section last year. Her priority is to hold corporations, individuals, and agencies accountable when they break environmental protection laws.
The BP case made national headlines—the oil giant was ordered to pay a criminal fine of $50 million and serve a three-year period of probation, the largest fine ever assessed for a violation of the Clean Air Act. Mitchell and the team of 40 attorneys and 65 staff members also enforce other environmental laws that cover everything from trafficking in endangered species to illegal oil spills.
Operation Central, a three-year undercover operation conducted by federal agents and members of Mitchell’s section, recently resulted in the convictions and stiff jail sentences for seven defendants—including the boot-maker to Mexico’s former President Vicente Fox—who took part in the illegal international trafficking of products made from endangered and threatened sea turtles, Mitchell said. Large numbers of sea turtles were illegally killed in Mexico and their skins were tanned at clandestine tanneries. The market value of the sea turtles at issue in the case, Mitchell said, was estimated to exceed $1 million.
With her Justice Department team, she is actively involved with the U.S. Coast Guard in efforts to detect, deter, and prosecute those who illegally discharge pollutants from ships into the oceans, coastal waters, and inland waterways—and who lie to officials about such activities, Mitchell said. Mitchell said her team currently is prosecuting the pilot and owner and operator of the Cosco Busan
, the ship that collided with a bridge in San Francisco Bay in 2007, spilling approximately 58,000 gallons of fuel oil.
While policy makers and scientists tackle issues like climate change, Mitchell protects the environment by enforcing criminal environmental violations. The message: it doesn’t pay to ignore environmental laws.
Trying such significant cases against defendants that include some of the most powerful companies in the world, it is essential to remain calm in the courtroom, Mitchell’s colleagues say. “Trials are incredibly stressful,” said Mark Winston, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey. Winston and Mitchell were teammates in a trial against employees of a petroleum-producing company that engaged in fraudulent testing of their product. “A lot is going on in the courtroom, and you need to be prepared.”
“Stacey has tremendous instincts and judgment,” he said. “She deals with things in a very calm, even manner. She’s unflappable.”
Part of that coolness under fire was learned on New York’s mean streets. After graduating from Tulane University Law School, where she studied environmental law, Mitchell worked for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, prosecuting serious crimes, including sex crimes, narcotics, and murder.
But it wasn’t long before Mitchell’s mind drifted back to her interests at Tulane. “I always had a bent toward environmental protection on some level,” said Mitchell, a Colorado native. “I wanted to get back into the environmental world.”
And the world, it can be argued, has benefited from her decision.
—Robin Respaut ’07