Justice Department Announces Environmental Justice Strategy
Environmental Policy Brief #142 | By: Stephen Thomas | May 8, 2022
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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.
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.”
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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.
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