A California man has been arrested and charged with smuggling greenhouse gases into the US from Mexico and selling them. This is the first time that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has prosecuted anybody for illegally importing greenhouse gases.

HCFC22 and ozone

Source: © Indigo Molecular Images/Science Photo Library

HCFC-22 (left) is a potent ozone-depleting gas that can destroy ozone (right) in the stratosphere. A Californian man has been charged with illegally importing HCFC-22 and HFCs

Michael Hart, a San Diego resident, was charged with violating US government regulations aimed at curbing the use of greenhouse gases and mitigating climate change, the DOJ announced on 4 March. It is illegal to import hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are commonly used as refrigerants, without special allowances issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Hart is accused of buying refrigerants in Mexico and trafficking them into the US in his vehicle by hiding them under a tarpaulin and tools. He posted the refrigerants for sale on OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace and other sites.

He faces 13 separate charges, including conspiracy, as well as multiple counts of illegal importation and selling imported goods illegally. He could face a maximum of 45 years in prison if convicted on all of the charges and 20 years if convicted on either of the counts related to illegal importation, according to the Attorney’s Office of Southern California. He also faces fines of up to $750,000 (£590,000).

‘It is illegal to import certain refrigerants into the United States because of their documented and significantly greater contribution to climate change,’ explained Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim with the DOJ’s environment and natural resources division.

David Uhlmann, the head of the EPA’s enforcement and compliance assurance office, said the arrest highlights the government’s efforts to prevent refrigerants that are climate super pollutants from illegally entering the country. ‘Anyone who seeks to profit from illegal actions that worsen climate change must be held accountable,’ he stated.

The global warming potential of an HFC can be hundreds to thousands of times that of carbon dioxide, and their use has rapidly increased worldwide due to the global phaseout of ozone-depleting substances and increased demand for refrigeration and air conditioning, according to the EPA.

The indictment also alleges that Hart illegally imported HCFC-22, an ozone-depleting substance commonly used as a propellant and refrigerant. In 2020, such applications of HCFC-22 were phased out in developed countries under the Montreal Protocol because of its ozone depleting properties.

‘This office is at the forefront of environmental prosecutions, and today is a significant milestone for our country,’ stated US 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.’

Hart made his first appearance in court on 4 March and pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. A pre-trial hearing has been set for 25 March.