Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday the launch of a new Justice Department office to advance President Biden’s environmental justice agenda.
The new Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) will oversee climate and pollution laws. The office will also oversee compensation for victims hurt by violations of federal environmental laws, payouts that were eliminated during the Trump administration.
“For far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve,” Mr. Garland said. “In our environmental efforts, we will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm.”
The actions he outlined represented a key part of the administration’s strategy to unilaterally advance a climate and environmental justice agenda in the face of gridlock in Congress.
The OEJ will work with Justice’s civil rights division. Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney from the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, will serve as the acting director of the new office.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, who participated in the announcement, said compensation for environmental justice victims would be part of a civil settlement process that could go toward community public health projects, including things like new air filter systems in schools and heavily industrialized areas, and reducing lead paint hazards in houses.
Recounting a recent trip through Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, Mr. Regan said he witnessed schools next to chemical plants, generations of family members diagnosed with cancer that he believed was caused by polluted air and water, and parents whose children had been poisoned by lead.
“Some of those conditions I’ve seen have been so shocking, I’ve had to remind myself that I was still standing in the United States of America,” he said. “These systemic challenges have harmed vulnerable communities for decades, robbing them of the opportunity to lead healthy, fulfilling lives.”
Jeffrey Clark, the former Justice Department attorney under Mr. Trump who had ended the compensation program, said the decision to restart it was unlawful.
“Looks like this unconstitutional/unlawful off-the-books spending program is being reinstated by this DOJ — in name of racial justice,” Mr. Clark tweeted. “I had ended that program with EPA. Note DOJ did not go to Congress to seek authorization. Just more classic phone & pen.”
Republicans and conservative figures were quick to decry the new office as an extremist overreach. They equated it to the Department of Homeland Security’s new Disinformation Governance Board, a departmental working group tasked with combating the spread of false information that could jeopardize national security.
“Last week the Biden Administration launched their Disinformation Governance Board. And now they just announced an Office of Environmental Justice,” tweeted Abigail Marone, the press secretary of Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley. “Their extremism has no limits.”
The DOJ’s first and only environmental justice investigation was launched last year under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars discrimination by those who receive federal money. The probe targets a local health department in Alabama that failed to rid predominantly-Black communities of raw sewage.
As part of the new efforts rolled out Thursday, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said all 93 U.S. attorneys from across the country will have to designate an environmental justice coordinator to “identify areas of concern in their communities and to establish procedures for members of the public to report those concerns.”