The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the creation of a new office to serve as a “central hub” for a federal environmental enforcement strategy that will pursue cases regarding environmental crime, pollution, and climate change, particularly those affecting minority and low-income communities.
The Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) will represent a partnership between the DOJ and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and “epitomizes the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to holding polluters accountable as a means to deliver on our environmental justice priorities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Thursday in a DOJ press release.
The new office will sit within the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) and be led by Acting Director Cynthia Ferguson, an experienced ENRD attorney with more than a decade working on environmental justice issues, the DOJ said.
“The burdens of environmental pollution have long been borne disproportionately by members of minority, tribal, and low-income communities. No American should have to live, work, or send their kids to school in a neighborhood that carries a disproportionate share of environmental hazards,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta in remarks delivered Thursday.
The DOJ also unveiled a comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy, which outlined the priorities for which environmental cases will be undertaken by the new office. The principles of the strategy include prioritizing cases that will reduce public health and environmental harms to overburdened and underserved communities, make strategic use of available legal tools to address environmental justice concerns, and promote transparency regarding environmental justice enforcement efforts, among others.
One of the tools the DOJ will use to accomplish the office’s goals is supplemental environmental projects, in which violators entering into settlement agreements can make payments to individuals and entities that are not parties to the underlying litigation.
These payments could include the funding of environmentally beneficial projects within the neighborhoods or communities affected by the environmental crime or pollution, according to a memorandum released by the DOJ as part of the announcement. The practice had been in use for decades before it was set aside in 2017, said Attorney General Merrick Garland in a speech.
“In our environmental efforts, we will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm,” Garland said. “And together with our Civil Rights Division, Office for Access to Justice, Office of Tribal Justice, and United States Attorneys’ Offices, OEJ will prioritize meaningful and constructive engagement with the communities most affected by environmental crime and injustice.”