U.S. Man Is First Charged With Smuggling Greenhouse Gases

Kena Betancur/VIEWpress via Getty Images
Kena Betancur/VIEWpress via Getty Images

A California man arrested Monday is the first person ever to be charged with smuggling banned greenhouse gases into the country, authorities announced.

Michael Hart, a 58-year-old San Diego resident, bought banned hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), in Tijuana, Mexico, and snuck them into the U.S. underneath a tarp and tools in the bed of his pickup truck, states a federal indictment filed Feb. 29 and unsealed upon Hart’s apprehension. Hart is also accused of driving HCFC-22, a powerful ozone-depleting substance outlawed since 2020, across the border.

He resold the illegal compounds, which are used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems, for a profit on websites including OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace, according to the indictment.

Hart is being prosecuted under the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020, a statute prohibiting the importation of HFCs—which can cause thousands of times more atmospheric warming than CO2—without permission from the Environmental Protection Agency.

His court-appointed lawyer, Sebastian Llewellyn Swain-Gil, did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Tuesday. Hart, who is out on bail, was unable to be reached.

“This office is at the forefront of environmental prosecutions, and today is a significant milestone for our country,” U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath said in a statement. “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.”

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said, “It is illegal to import certain refrigerants into the United States because of their documented and significantly greater contribution to climate change. We are committed to enforcing the AIM Act and other laws that seek to prevent environmental harm.”

According to the indictment, Hart’s purchases were enabled by a network of co-conspirators in Mexico. He had buyers in California, telling one that he was able to bring in 15 to 20 tanks of prohibited refrigerants a week, the indictment states.

In a court appearance on Monday, Hart pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy, which carries up to five years in prison; five counts of importation contrary to law, which each carry up to 20 years in prison; and seven counts of sale of merchandise imported contrary to law, which each carry up to 20 years. All three charges also carry a potential fine of $250,000.

Hart was booked and freed on a $30,000 appearance bond, according to court records. He surrendered his passport, and a judge restricted his travel to San Diego County as he awaits trial. Crossing into Mexico is off-limits for now, according to Hart’s release conditions.

Hart is due back in court on March 25.

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