Updated January 13, 2023 at 2:14 p.m. EST|Published January 13, 2023 at 7:08 a.m. EST
Around New York City dedicated bounty hunters can be found scanning the city’s bustling streets for their targets: idling trucks spewing climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere.In Milwaukee, people who report illegal dumping could be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, California residents are encouraged to report forms of water waste, such as overwatering lawns.
In a country where most people are familiar with some version of the phrase, “If you see something, say something,” it’s not really surprising that local governments nationwide have turned to the public to help enforce environmental laws.
“There’s widespread public support for enforcement of environmental laws, and yet there’s too few resources dedicated to getting the job done,” said Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The government can’t be everywhere all the time. They can’t have eyes on the ground everywhere all the time, so they need help and this is one way that the public can participate.”
Reporting violations is an important way citizens can do their part to ensure “our laws are meaningfully enforced,” Fleischli added. “It’s meant to supplement, not supplant, government action, and so it can be very effective.”
Here’s what to know about some of the different ways you can help bust environmental lawbreakers.
Many states and D.C. have idling limits for some or all vehicles. In some places, idling laws target specific vehicles that can be significant sources of pollution, such as school buses, state-owned vehicles and those over a certain weight. Other regulations aim to minimize the harms of keeping engines running by limiting idling to between three and five minutes for many vehicles. According to the Department of Energy, eliminating the unnecessary idling of personal vehicles would have the same impact as taking 5 million cars off the roads.
To help enforce idling limits, a number of cities have rolled out initiatives to encourage the public to report violators, and the reporting often includes submitting proof in the form of videos or photos. Keep in mind that the reporting process and requirements for what constitutes illegal idling can differ based on your location. Here are some examples:
D.C.: D.C.'s Department of Energy and Environment has establish ed its own idling enforcement program. Reports of vehicles idling for more than three minutes (the time limit extends to up to five minutes when temperatures are at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit) can be submitted through D.C.’s 311 mobile app. Residents are encouraged to file complaints for commercial trucks and buses, according to the program’s reporting guidelines. Personal, noncommercial passenger cars and vehicles that need to stay on to power machinery, such as cement mixers, are exempt.
New York: The city became the first in the nation to offer a cut of any issued fines to people who report polluting trucks. Launched in 2018, New York’s “Citizens Air Complaint Program” incentivizes people to submit videos of trucks that are idling for more than three minutes, or one minute if they’re outside a school, by providing a payout of 25 percent of the ultimate penalty. With fines for illegal idling ranging from $350 to $2,000, a single successful report could net you more than $80.
“The same way we should be voting, we should be reporting law violations because that’s the fundamental obligation, in my view, of a citizen in a democratic society,” said Maria Maki Haberfeld, a professor in the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “This is why I don’t think that it should necessarily be compensated with money. I think it’s a matter of good citizenship rather than a for-profit initiative.”
And using money as an incentive could create its own issues, Haberfeld said. Beyond potentially creating additional strain on community-police relations, the lucrative opportunity could lead people to submit exaggerated or false reports, she said. “It’s problematic also from the standpoint of possible altercations that people might have with the people they’re reporting.”
New York City is also looking to expand its enforcement of idling to illegally parked vehicles, including those blocking bike lanes. Modeled after the idling program, a pro posed bill would allow citizens to submit photos of blocked bike lanes and other parking violations, such as obstructed crosswalks and sidewalks, to the Department of Transportation and potentially receive a quarter of the amount of a resulting ticket.
“When we look at the largest sources of emissions in New York City, it’s our buildings followed by transportation,” said New York city council member Lincoln Restler, who sponsored the legislation. “We have to get New Yorkers out of their personal vehicles and into subways and buses and bicycles. But if New Yorkers are going to regularly commute by bicycle, they need to feel safer doing so.”
In response to concerns about potentially creating another reason for citizen vigilantes to take to the streets, Restler said it’s necessary for people who are going to submit complaints to understand the law and reporting guidelines and receive appropriate training.
“The most important thing to me is that we make our streets safe, and my priority is that pedestrians and cyclists are able to move around our streets safely and efficiently,” he said. “The potential incentive for complainants is an effective way for us to maximize accountability against illegal activity and swiftly make our streets safer.”
Offering rewards is also “nothing new,” Fleischli said. He added that agencies responsible for enforcement still have “a lot of discretion” when it comes to addressing any violations reported by citizens.
“There’s still a trier of fact involved in the process to determine whether violations have truly occurred or not,” he said. “It’s not like the person’s just issuing the ticket themselves.”
A number of local governments have also turned to citizens to assist with enforcing laws intended to curb illegal dumping. Through these programs, similar to other community reporting initiatives, people who report violations in certain cities and counties could be eligible for cash rewards. Some examples include:
Rochester, N.Y.: The city offers $100 to any citizen whose report leads to the person or organization doing the illegal dumping.
Milwaukee: In Milwaukee, people who report illegal dumping can receive up to $1,000 if they provide enough information to lead to a citation. “Illegal dumping is a burden to residents and a blight on our beautiful city,” the city’s website states. “Don’t let illegal dumping ruin your neighborhood.”
Sacramento: This reward program gives between $500 to $1,000 to people who provide information that results in a penalty or an arrest and conviction, with limits on the total number of rewards and amount of compensation a single person can receive each year.
If you live in an area prone to droughts, you might be able to help crack down on wasteful water use by reporting violations of local regulations.
In drought-stricken California, residents are encouraged to report water use violations through an online portal. The website, which allows users to anonymously submit reports as well as photos of leaks and water waste, is described as “an easy-to-use tool that directly reports water waste to the proper authority — anywhere in California.”
“What happens in one building or household affects the water supply for all the buildings and households across a municipality area,” Hyun said. “To be able to report to the common water supplier, to understand where leakages could be or where violations could be, helps everyone in the community.”