California man first in U.S. to be charged with smuggling greenhouse gases

A U.S Customs and Border Protection official stands among the lanes of cars entering the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Tijuana, Mexico. Pandemic-related asylum restrictions that expelled migrants millions of times were lifted early Friday, as people raced to enter the United States before new rules announced by President Joe Biden's administration set in. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A U.S Customs and Border Protection official standing among the lanes of cars entering the San Ysidro Port of Entry in May 2023. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

A San Diego man has been arrested on suspicion of smuggling potent greenhouse gases into the United States from Mexico, becoming the first in the nation to be charged with smuggling the environmentally harmful gases that are commonly used as refrigerants, according to federal prosecutors.

Michael Hart, 58, is accused of hiding the hydrofluorocarbons, also known as HFCs, in his vehicle to transport them across the border from Mexico, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of California. Hydrofluorocarbons are considered a major driver of global warming and have been targeted in climate legislation and treaties worldwide. In 2022, the refrigerants became illegal to import in the U.S. without allowances from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hart, who was arrested Monday, pleaded not guilty in the case, according to prosecutors. Hart's attorney, Sebastian L. Swain-Gil with the Federal Defenders of San Diego, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“This is the first time the Department of Justice is prosecuting someone for illegally importing greenhouse gases, and it will not be the last," Tara McGrath, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said in a statement. "We are using every means possible to protect our planet from the harm caused by toxic pollutants, including bringing criminal charges.”

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The indictment against Hart alleged he posted the refrigerants — which are often used in refrigeration, air-conditioning and building insulation — for sale across online sites such as OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace, and sold them for a profit. In addition to greenhouse gases, the indictment alleges Hart imported HCFC-22, another ozone-depleting substance highly regulated by federal officials.

The indictment said that Hart conspired with people in both Mexico and the U.S. to buy and sell the refrigerant from June 2022 through December 2022.

“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, EPA assistant administrator for 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.”

The Kigali Amendment sought to limit the use and production of HFCs across the globe and find cleaner alternatives for refrigerants. Nearly 200 nations agreed to the deal in 2016, though the U.S. did not sign on until 2021, after President Biden took office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.