Energy & Environment

DOJ announces new office focused on environmental justice

The Justice Department announced on Thursday that it will create a new office focused on environmental justice.

“Although violations of our environmental laws can happen anywhere, communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a press conference. 

The announcement said the new office would be titled the Office of Environmental Justice.

The office will be led by Cynthia Ferguson, a Justice Department lawyer who has worked on cases related to environmental justice for more than a decade, according to a statement.

Historically, many polluting projects have been located in minority neighborhoods, exposing these communities to additional health risks. 

In addition to the new office, the department also announced that it would use a new environmental justice “strategy.”

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said that the department’s environmental justice strategy would involve prioritizing enforcement of environmental laws and civil rights statutes.

She also said it will direct the DOJ to prioritize cases that reduce environmental harm for overburdened communities.

And, it directs the new Office of Environmental Justice to work with communities that have been the victims of environmental crimes and requires all 93 U.S. attorneys across the country to designate an environmental justice coordinator to find “areas of concern” in their communities.

The department also said it would restore the use of supplemental environmental projects, in which, as part of a penalty for violating environmental laws, polluters can choose to subsidize projects that help clean up the environment.

The Trump administration had terminated their use, arguing they were inconsistent with the law and a “departure from sound enforcement practices.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan on Thursday said the decision by the previous administration was inexplicable.

“These projects have been an important part of the EPA’s enforcement program for more than 30 years,” he said. 

Last year, the Justice Department issued a memo that withdrew nine Trump-era directives, including its restrictions on supplemental environmental projects. 

Justice Department spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle clarified that the prior memo withdrew the restrictions “pending a review” and that the issuance of Thursday’s new interim rule completes that process.

Garland issued guidelines on Thursday stating that the projects in question should have a connection to the underlying environmental violation, adding that they should not be used to fulfill existing obligations on government agencies. 

While on the campaign trail, President Biden pledged to make environmental justice a central theme of his administration. Since taking office, he has launched the “Justice40” initiative, stating that 40 percent of the  benefits of government climate and clean energy investments should go to historically disadvantaged communities. 

Meanwhile, in November, the Justice Department announced an environmental justice investigation into sewage management in Alabama based on accusations of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. 

Updated at 4:50 p.m.

Tags Department of Justice environmental justice Merrick Garland Merrick Garland Michael Regan pollution Vanita Gupta

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