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Man becomes the first person to be charged with illegal smuggling of refrigerant: 'It will not be the last'

"It appears that a black market has arisen due to the regulatory scheme in the treaty."

"It appears that a black market has arisen due to the regulatory scheme in the treaty."

Photo Credit: iStock

On March 4, 2024, California man Michael Hart became the first person to be arrested and charged with smuggling greenhouse gases across the border from Mexico into the United States. 

This was the first U.S. prosecution to include charges associated with the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020 (AIM Act), according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The act prohibits importing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) outside the restrictions imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hart allegedly hid HFC canisters under a tarp to smuggle them across the border. He intended to sell them on sites such as Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp, per the New York Times.

The EPA has restricted HFC manufacture, distribution, and use across various sectors. The goal is to gradually phase out these products. However, Mexico is not as far along as the United States in its usage reduction.

Besides harming the ozone layer, HFCs can cause suffocation at high concentrations and damage the heart, as Sweden's Environmental Protection Agency, Naturvårdsverket, has noted.

They're similar to other environmental pollutants that have multiple adverse effects. For example, more than 7 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution complications, according to the World Health Organization.

While speaking of the arrest, David M. Uhlmann — the U.S. EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance — said in a statement: "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."

A spokesperson from the U.S. Attorney's Office Southern District of California, which is prosecuting the case, told Business Insider: "It appears that a black market has arisen due to the regulatory scheme in the treaty which provides for differing phase-out schedules for the United States and Mexico." They continued by saying this landscape "creates a significant price differential due to the restrictions on supply in the United States that do not exist in Mexico."

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Tara McGrath said it was the first prosecution of its kind, but "it will not be the last." That's likely because of the demand for HFCs. As long as there is demand, people will look for reasons to meet it — despite the illegality and associated risks.

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