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DOJ to let companies pay for environmental projects again to reduce fines

DOJ to let companies pay for environmental projects again to reduce fines

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has eliminated nine Trump-era directives on environmental law enforcement, including one that ended polluters’ ability to reduce fines by paying for environmental projects. 

In a memo, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jean Williams, a career official, wrote that the policies were “inconsistent with longstanding Division policy and practice" and "may impede the full exercise of enforcement discretion in the Division’s cases.”

Through its action Thursday, the department restored the use of Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) in agency settlements, which are popular with both industry and environmentalists. 

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SEPs, which have been used for roughly three decades in environmental cases, allow companies to take actions like cleaning up streams to lessen any fines they may have to pay for environmental violations.

Eighty percent of what companies spend on a project can be credited as a discount to any potential fines, with companies often choosing to clean up areas they polluted.

Williams this week also withdrew a memo that prevented the department from pursuing civil penalties in cases where states had already taken action.

The Trump administration said it was attempting to avoid “piling on” companies already facing scrutiny from states. Critics said the federal memo could shield bad actors from sufficient accountability, arguing that the federal government has the authority to levy steeper penalties than states.

The new memo said that it was nixing the directives under President Biden’s executive order that tells agencies to address actions that “that conflict with these important national objectives, and to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.” 

Biden has named climate change as one of his top priorities and had vowed on the campaign trail to hold polluters to account.