Man Charged With Refrigerant Smuggling Greenhouse Gases From Mexico Into US

A Man charged with refrigerant smuggling was arrested and charged Monday with allegedly smuggling potent, planet-heating greenhouse gases from Mexico, marking the first such prosecution in the US, according to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California. 

Michael Hart, a 58-year-old man from San Diego, pleaded not guilty to smuggling hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs — commonly used in air conditioning and refrigeration — and selling them for profit, in a federal court hearing Monday.

According to the indictment, Hart allegedly purchased the HFCs in Mexico and smuggled them into the US in the back of his truck, concealed under a tarp and tools. He is then alleged to have sold them for a profit on sites including Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp.

“It is illegal to import certain refrigerants into the United States because of their documented and significantly greater contribution to climate change,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement Monday.

CNN is attempting to reach an attorney for Hart.

HFCs, which are also used in building insulation, fire extinguishing systems and aerosols, are banned from import into the US without permission from the Environmental Protection Agency.

These greenhouse gases are short-lived in the atmosphere, but powerful — some are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in the near-term.

“The Man charged with refrigerant smuggling and illegal smuggling of hydrofluorocarbons, a highly potent greenhouse gas, undermines international efforts to combat climate change,” said David M. Uhlmann, the assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Anyone who seeks to profit from illegal actions that worsen climate change must be held accountable,” he added.

Countries have committed to cut the use of HFCs. In 2016, nearly 200 nations including the US agreed to the Kigali Amendment to reduce planet-heating pollution from these greenhouse gases.

The UN Environment Program estimated at the time that the agreed reduction in HFCs could prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by the end of the century.

But over the past two decades, the use of HFCs has increased rapidly, mainly because they are being used as a replacement for ozone-depleting substances which have been rapidly phased out globally.

As the world heats up, so does demand for AC and refrigerants.

Hart is also alleged to have imported HCFC 22, a ozone-depleting substance that has been phased out in the US and has been illegal to import into the US since 2020.

US Attorney Tara McGrath said in a statement Monday: “Today is a significant milestone for our country. 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 has pleaded not guilty to 13 charges including conspiracy, importation contrary to law and sale of merchandise imported contrary to law. The charges carry potential prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years.

His next hearing date is set for March 25.


March 5, 2024 at 9:02 AM

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