Department of Justice launches the Office of Environmental Justice


Steve Fernie | Flickr

Nathan Woo Yang

Attorney General Merrick Garland has announced the creation of a new office at the Department of Justice that will focus exclusively on environmental justice on May 5.

“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 stated in a press conference.

The new office, titled the Office of Environmental Justice, will be led by former Justice Department lawyer Cynthia Ferguson, who has worked on environmental justice cases for over a decade.

The Department of Justice will prioritize the enforcement of environmental laws and civil rights statutes to reduce environmental harm for overburdened communities, according to Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.

U.S. attorneys and other components of the Department of Justice are being encouraged to create “environmental enforcement task forces,” that can be used to pursue matters related to environmental justice.

Garland and United States Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan jointly announced a new strategy to tackle environmental issues by working transparently. Additionally, they announced that the DOJ will be reinstating a banned enforcement tool.

The return of supplemental environmental projects as an enforcement mechanism was highlighted by Regan.

“These projects have been an important part of the EPA’s enforcement program for more than 30 years,” Regansaid.

Polluters will be able to finance local initiatives as part of settlements for violating environment laws. Regan emphasized that the return of such supplemental projects will benefit communities harmed by environmental injustices.

Last year, Regan announced an additional $50 million for the use of enhancing air pollution monitoring and improving air quality in low-income communities and communities of color.

Garland issued guidelines outlining that the supplemental projects could not be used to fulfill already existing obligations on government agencies and should have a connection to an existing violation.

“Because these projects bring environmental and public health benefits to the communities most directly affected by the underlying violations, they are particularly powerful tools for advancing environmental justice,” Garland remarked.

Supplemental environmental projects were previously terminated by the Trump administration, citing that such measures were a “departure from sound enforcement practices.”

In January  2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing Garland to “ensure comprehensive attention to environmental justice throughout the Department of Justice.”

The Justice Department opened its first environmental justice investigation in November 2021 to determine if wastewater disposal and infectious disease program operations of the Alabama Public Health Department and the Lowndes County Health Department were discriminatory to Black people.

The announcements were widely welcomed by environmental justice advocates.

“As climate change worsens, it is imperative that our leaders produce real, tangible solutions to protect Black and frontline communities and correct existing and past harms, all while initiating direct law enforcement corrective responses to egregious harms and environmental injustices,” NAACP’s environmental and climate justice program manager Jane English wrote in a statement.