WASHINGTON (CN) — Attorney General Merrick Garland launched the Justice Department’s first-ever Office of Environmental Justice on Thursday as part of a strategy laid out in the first month of the Biden administration.
“We will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm,” the attorney general said during a news conference this afternoon in Washington.
The strategy — which stems from the executive order “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” — is teeming with social justice buzzwords, saying the government will make use of all available environmental legal tools, promote transparency surrounding enforcement efforts and ensure “meaningful” engagement with communities facing outsize repercussions from American industry.
Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney within the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, has been tapped to serve as acting director of the office. One of her first actions will be to establish a steering committee within the Justice Department that will meet regularly to provide guidance on how the strategy can be implemented across multiple departments.
The strategy calls for an update to protocols that govern how environmental justice impacts are studied during investigations and encourages the use or creation of environmental justice task forces. The plan also encourages U.S. attorneys to pursue civil rights claims like the allegations that sparked the department's first-of-its-kind environmental justice probe in Alabama last fall.
Investigators are looking into accusations that two health departments in Alabama are operating wastewater-disposal and infectious disease and outbreak programs in a way that discriminates against Black residents in Lowndes County in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“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 said.
Toxic air pollutants, he said, have caused "scores" of cancer-related deaths in the communities, including areas where students have been exposed to boilers in public schools and infectious diseases have spread due to wastewater mismanagement.
“For far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve," he said.
The attorney general also revealed that he issued a memo to restore the department’s use of supplemental environmental projects, which was gutted in 2017 under the Trump administration.
“For decades before 2017, EPA and ENRD relied upon such projects to provide redress to communities most directly affected by violations of federal environmental laws,” according to the strategy. “For this reason, they are particularly powerful tools for advancing environmental justice.”
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during the news conference that the agency’s partnership with the Biden administration “to protect overburdened and underserved communities across America has never been stronger.”
“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,” Regan said.
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