The Power Behind the Flower: EPA Special Agents 101

In my investigation of environmental crime — Grease thieves, corn oil and fraud: How biofuel scam artists bilked U.S. taxpayers of billions — I learned much about US Environmental Protection Agency special agents.

Like other federal agencies, the EPA has its own police arm, known as the Criminal Investigation Division. EPA special agents are trained in the same law enforcement and investigation techniques as FBI agents, also carry weapons, go undercover, and make arrests.

EPA’s environmental crime bulletins detail much of the day-to-day case work of special agents, but despite the publicly available information, EPA special agents and their work are largely unknown to Americans compared to other federal agents. While Jack Ryan thwarts terrorists for the CIA and Clarice Starling hunts serial killers for the FBI, the representation of EPA agents in popular storytelling is limited to preening jerk Walter Peck in Ghostbusters and Steven Segal’s clownish Jack Taggert in the dismal Fire Down Below.

In the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, envelopes containing the deadly poison anthrax were mailed to national media outlets and congressional offices, killing five. EPA special agents were among the only law enforcement officials at the time properly trained as first responders to the attacks.

Special agents operate in a wide, multi-institution jurisdiction that doesn’t just deal with crimes to the environment, but often involves banking, customs, tax law and immigration policy. While some federal criminal cases take months to pursue, EPA agents often build cases over years due to the methodical nature of identifying chemicals and pollution in a way that can be unassailable in court. They constantly operate in hazardous environments while protecting poor and minority communities.

“It’s traditional law enforcement in a non-traditional area,” former EPA Criminal Investigation Division Director Doug Parker told me. Parker spent 25 years chasing criminal polluters for the EPA, from the DeepWater Horizon disaster to Volkswagen’s fraudulent emissions scandal. “Some of us call ourselves the power behind the flower,” Parker said of the self-appointed moniker used by some agents in a nod to the agency’s logo.

“You see arrogance in our criminals that you don’t get with other crimes. Often our targets have PHDs in chemistry or something else smart and they’re convinced they can get away with,” retired EPA Special Agent in Charge Kris Wilson told me in an interview. She spent twenty years as an agent, finishing her career running the Los Angeles office.  

I’ll be writing more about EPA special agents and environmental crime in this space, but for now, enjoy Special Agent Andrea Abat talking about her environmental hero origin story.

About the author

For over fifteen years I’ve investigated and written about America’s worst polluters from the gas fields of North Dakota to the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve been a Senior Advisor for the Environmental Working Group and a Senior Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. As a freelance journalist, I’ve written for Politico, the Washington DC City Paper, the Huffington Post, Grist, Civil Eats and the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

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