Emphasizing homeland security as an environmental issue, Ashcroft pledged to increase the Justice Department's prosecution of civil cases to make operators of pipelines, fuel storage tanks, chemical plants and drinking water facilities comply with environmental and safety laws.
That means, he said, going to court to ensure pipelines do not leak or explode, that hazardous wastes and chemicals are properly stored, treated and disposed of, that water supplies are protected and that each facility develop emergency response plans.
He said the department also will seek criminal penalties when appropriate.
"These laws do more than just protect the health and safety of our citizens," Ashcroft told reporters gathered in his office. "Compliance with and enforcement of these laws makes a real difference in our level of national preparedness."
Ashcroft said his civil enforcement priorities for the department's Environment and Natural Resources Division also include ensuring that companies breaking environmental laws do not gain an unfair economic advantage over those that are law-abiding.
To do that, companies should be forced to pay a premium for any delay in paying penalties, said Ashcroft and Tom Sansonetti, the assistant attorney general who heads the division.
Jon Devine, a senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council, said the department could do more by making public more information about chemical plant dangers. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration removed information from federal Web sites about specific risk management plans for spills and airborne releases of toxins.
Patrick A. Parenteau, a law professor at Vermont Law School, said it is an open question whether increased enforcement in the name of security generates public health benefits.
"There's a danger that by emphasizing all this security-related enforcement, we're going to lose sight of something else that might need to be done," he said.
Ashcroft said during the last months of the Clinton administration and the first year and a half of the Bush administration, the Justice Department secured record cleanup and compliance commitments by enforcing clean air, water and hazardous waste laws.
In the fiscal year ending last October, $3.6 billion was collected or promised, according to Justice Department figures. For the prior fiscal year, which included the last three and a half months of the Clinton presidency, the amount was $4.3 billion, the highest ever, the department said. For the last full fiscal year of the Clinton presidency, compliance payments and commitments totaled $2.7 billion.