Canisters of HFCs and HCFCs. Source: J.G. Park on Flickr
Canisters of HFCs and HCFCs. (Source: J.G. Park on Flickr)

California Man Arrested and Charged for Smuggling HFCs into the U.S. in First-of-Its-Kind Case

The accused is being prosecuted for violating the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act.

A California man has become the first person to be arrested and charged with the smuggling of HFCs into the United States under the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act of 2020, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The accused, Michael Hart of San Diego, is being prosecuted for importing the potent f-gases from Mexico and selling them for profit online without allowances issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is in violation of the AIM Act. Hart allegedly purchased the refrigerants in Mexico and smuggled them into the United States in his vehicle by hiding them under a tarp and tools. The refrigerants were then sold on OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace and other websites.

“The illegal smuggling of [HFCs] 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.”

In addition to HFCs, Hart allegedly imported HCFC R22, an ozone-depleting substance that is regulated under the Clean Air Act.

“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,” added Uhlmann.

Hart pleaded not guilty to 13 charges at his first court appearance on March 4, with his next hearing scheduled for March 25, according to the DOJ. The charges Hart faces carry potential prison sentences ranging from 5 to 20 years and fines of $250,000 (€228,700).

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

Preventing the illegal HFC trade: With demand for HFCs rising globally due to the phase out of HCFCs and the growing demand for cooling, the illegal trade of HFCs is rising, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO that has been tracking the issue since the 1990s.

  • According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the United States is taking a number of steps to detect and prevent the illegal trade of HFCs. These include banning single-use cylinders, which it says are often used for smuggling, and using QR codes to track legally traded products.
  • On March 15, 2022, the EPA’s Interagency Task Force on Illegal HFC Trade announced it had prevented illegal HFC shipments equivalent to approximately 530,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions over a 10-week period. The United States began requiring allowances to import HFCs on January 1, 2022.

“This is a climate crime we anticipated,” says Avipsa Mahapatra, Director of Climate Campaigns at the EIA, in a LinkedIn post. “Today it is one smuggler stopped thanks to [an] all-of-government approach, but a lot more remains to be done globally! The Montreal Protocol is only as successful as its enforcement.”

“The truly climate-friendly action here would be to completely eliminate dependence on f-gases in the first place so there’d be no demand to spur such illegal trade,” she told R744.com.

The regulation of f-gases: Globally, the phase out of HCFCs and phase down of HFCs are largely covered by the Montreal Protocol and its Kigali Amendment, respectively. In the U.S., national regulations are also in place to control the use of these ozone-depleting and climate-damaging substances.

  • Under the Clean Air Act, work to phase out the use of HCFCs in the U.S. began in 2010. On January 1, 2020, a ban on the production and importation of R22 came into force.
  • A wide range of HFCs are covered under the AIM Act. Since January 1, 2022, the act prohibits the importation of bulk regulated HFCs and no persons may sell or distribute such substances without an allowance issued by the EPA.

According to Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, the U.S. is “committed to enforcing the AIM Act and other laws that seek to prevent environmental harm.”

“The truly climate-friendly action here would be to completely eliminate dependence on f-gases in the first place so there’d be no demand to spur such illegal trade.”

Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA

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