Garland and Regan

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (L) speaks at a press conference with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan (R) May 5, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Biden DOJ Applauded for 'Long Overdue' Environmental Justice Plan

"Communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution, and climate change," said the U.S. attorney general.

Environmental justice advocates on Thursday cautiously welcomed the federal government's new plan to deliver on some of U.S. President Joe Biden's campaign promises to hold polluters accountable and better serve disproportionately impacted communities.

"This addition is a vital step toward eliminating environmental racism."

Applauding the administration's announcement, the Western Environmental Law Center said that its three-part plan "will mark significant steps toward justice for frontline communities."

"Action to protect members of historically marginalized communities who have disproportionately suffered environmental harms is long, long overdue, and this progress toward righting that wrong is most welcome," the group added, while pledging to "monitor this new initiative to gauge follow-through on the lofty goals."

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland laid out the administration's moves during a press conference, which also featured remarks from Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan.

"Consistent with the president's executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, we are issuing a comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy," Garland announced.

The strategy, Gupta said, will guide all Department of Justice (DOJ) work on the issue and ensure it "is using every available tool to secure environmental justice for everyone."

As Gupta detailed:

This means prioritizing enforcement of environmental laws as well as civil rights statutes, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

The strategy directs department components to prioritize cases that reduce environmental harms on overburdened and underserved communities, including communities of color, tribal populations, and low-income rural and urban communities.

The Biden administration is also launching the DOJ's first-ever Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), which Garland said will "oversee and help guide the Justice Department's wide-ranging environmental justice efforts."

Garland also announced that he is "issuing an interim final rule that will restore the use of an important law enforcement tool--supplemental environmental projects--subject to new guidelines and limitations."

That tool enabled fines paid by polluters to "go to river cleanup, health clinics, or other programs that benefit the environment or public health," the Associated Pressexplained Thursday. "The program was used by presidents from both parties before being eliminated in the Trump administration."

The EPA administrator, in a statement Thursday, emphasized the importance of bringing back such projects.

"EPA and the Justice Department's partnership to protect overburdened and underserved communities across America has never been stronger," said Regan. "This environmental justice enforcement strategy epitomizes the Biden-Harris administration's commitment to holding polluters accountable as a means to deliver on our environmental justice priorities."

"Critical to that is the return of supplemental environmental projects as a tool to secure tangible public health benefits for communities harmed by environmental violations," he asserted.

The AG told reporters that "Administrator Regan and I know that the communities most impacted by environmental harm are not isolated in any one part of our country. Environmental crime and injustice touch communities in all our cities, towns, rural areas, and on tribal lands."

"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," Garland continued. "They include fenceline communities, where exposure to toxic air pollutants have caused scores of cancer-related deaths."

"For far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve."

"They include communities where students have been exposed to harmful emissions from boilers in their public schools," he added. "They include communities where infectious diseases have spread because of inadequate wastewater management. And for far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve."

In a series of tweets Thursday, the U.S. Senate's Environmental Justice Caucus said that it "looks forward to working with DOJ and EPA to help communities that unfairly bear the brunt of pollution."

"By strengthening enforcement against the bad actors that exploit our most disadvantaged communities," the caucus declared, "we will better be able to protect public health and promote equity for every citizen, no matter their zip code."

"Every American has a right to drink clean water, breathe clean air, and live in communities free of pollution," the senators said, "and this announcement moves us closer to a future where that is a reality."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), also welcomed the moves in a statement.

"We're thrilled to see the Biden administration continue to advance key policies from our CPC Executive Action Agenda, this time putting the full power of the Department of Justice behind advancing environmental justice," she said.

Jayapal continued:

In our agenda, we urged President Biden to respond to the disproportionate and devastating impact of climate change and pollution on poor communities and people of color in two ways: ensuring at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy go to disadvantaged communities, and holding government agencies accountable for reducing disproportionate environmental impacts on frontline communities. We applaud the new DOJ Office of Environmental Justice for advancing significant progress on those two goals.

Today's announcement shows an administration that is not afraid to go to bat for our most vulnerable communities against waste, corruption, and discrimination. We're seeing the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice play hardball on behalf of communities of color, and a Biden administration bringing the full weight of its enforcement powers--not only its regulatory ones--in the fight for environmental justice. We look forward to continuing to work with President Biden and his administration to advance our executive action agenda and deliver for communities across the country.

The DOJ announcement came as the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) revealed that Jalonne White-Newsome will succeed Cecilia Martinez as senior director for environmental justice.

"Jalonne is a strong and effective champion for communities that have been overburdened by pollution and subjected to decades of environmental injustice," said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory. "Jalonne's ability to listen deeply, bring people together, and find creative solutions will be invaluable as we work to deliver on President Biden's promise of environmental justice for all."

Welcoming that development, members of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform said in a statement that "Dr. White-Newsome brings a breadth of experience to CEQ through her work with communities in Detroit, environmental philanthropy, and academia."

"This is an historic opportunity for the Biden administration to deliver on its promises so that no communities are left behind," the group added. "We congratulate Dr. White-Newsome and look forward to working with her and CEQ to deliver to our communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis."

This post has been updated with comment from the CPC.

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