Now, more than ever, environmental disasters occur on an unprecedented scale. The main objective of environmental law is to protect the environment and human health from harm. In recognition of the role that businesses and corporations play in causing such harm, many environmental laws have been amended to criminalize their harmful conduct.

Focusing on the criminal provisions in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that target offenders who engage in conduct “knowingly,” this Note addresses the split regarding the intent required for a criminal conviction, and the resultant weight accorded these statutes. Courts should interpret “knowingly” to require proof that a defendant only had a general awareness of the harmful conduct—rather than knowledge of the law or additional facts—by adopting a modified public welfare approach. This approach is proper, as it is derived from the Supreme Court case United States v. International Minerals, and necessary, considering the plain meaning of the statutory text, statutory purpose, legislative history, and general principals of criminal law.

This Note contends that the modified public welfare approach is correct because it classifies the above statutes as dealing with public welfare offenses, which in turn permits application of the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine to hold corporate officers responsible and deter future violations. It also provides safeguards to ensure that the “knowingly” standard of intent is accorded proper weight. Since statutes are not interpreted in a vacuum, this Note holistically evaluates the propriety of the approach based on the ordinary meaning of the statutes’ text, which ultimately advances congressional intent.