Justice Department Announces Environmental Justice Strategy

Environmental Policy Brief #142 | By: Stephen Thomas | May 8, 2022

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Biden administration restores environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects such as this pipeline project in Wisconsin.

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Policy Summary

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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced in Washington May 5, 2022, a multifaceted program in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency to protect and  improve the environment and address climate change.

The effort is consistent with an executive order that President Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued Jan. 27, 2021.

Policy Analysis

The first step in the Biden administration’s approach to environmental protection is the implementation of an “environmental justice” strategy, which, according to Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, entails “meaningful involvement of affected communities in making the decisions that impact them,” to include reducing “environmental harms on overburdened and underserved communities, including communities of color, tribal populations and low-income rural and urban communities.”

The second step is the creation of the “Justice Department’s first-ever Office of Environmental Justice to oversee and help guide the Justice Department’s wide-ranging environmental justice efforts,” Garland said in his prepared remarks at the kickoff announcement.

Step three is a proposed interim final rule published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, intended to restore “supplemental environmental projects” as a tool to mitigate environmental impacts as a part of settlement agreements between the federal government and polluters that are caught red-handed. Under administrative rule making, Congress gives federal agencies authority, by statute, to write rules that will become part of the Code of Federal Regulations.

“The Justice Department has three essential responsibilities: upholding the rule of law, keeping our country safe, and protecting civil rights,” Garland said in his opening speech. “Seeking and securing justice for communities that are disproportionately burdened by environmental harms is a task demanded by all three of those responsibilities. It is a task we gladly undertake.”

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan reinforced the dual-agency commitment following Garland’s remarks.

“EPA and the Justice Department’s partnership to protect overburdened and underserved communities across America has never been stronger,” Regan said. “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.”

2021 09 05 New US office to protect health from climate threats Hurricane Ida CREDIT Louisiana National Guard via flickr

US launches environmental justice office to protect “overburdened and underserved” communities. Pictured above: People being rescued by boat in the badly flooded LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

Photo taken from: Global Government Forum

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Supplemental environmental Projects are methods by which polluters agree in their settlements with the Justice Department to undertake efforts to mitigate or prevent risks to public health that their environmental harm imposes. In his memorandum to the nation’s U.S. attorneys dated the same day as the announcement, Garland said the SEPs are a form of “redress to communities most directly affected by violations of federal environmental laws.”

The Biden Justice Department’s rule making on the SEP has been intended to reverse the process that the administration of President Donald Trump initiated Dec. 16, 2020. Trump-era rules state that “in no case shall any settlement agreement require defendants in environmental cases, in lieu of payment to the Federal Government, to expend funds to provide goods or services to third parties for Supplemental Environmental Projects,” according to a Trump administration Federal Register notice.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Attorney General Garland’s Memorandum to U.S. Attorneys

Actions to Advance Environmental Justice, AG Memo May 5, 2022


President Joseph R. Biden’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice

Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad | The White House

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Interim Final Rule Published Tuesday, May 10, 2022 (Pre-Published Version)

2022-10036.pdf (federalregister.gov)

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Trump Administration Rule Against Supplemental Environmental Projects

2020-27189.pdf (govinfo.gov)

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