The Department of Justice Announced New Climate Cops. What Can They Do?

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is launching an environmental justice enforcement strategy and an office specifically devoted to upholding it, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday.

The new Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) is part of a broader trend of recognition across the Biden administration of the disproportionate burden that air pollution, extreme weather, and other consequences of the climate crisis place on low-income and communities of color across the U.S. Launched in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the office will strive to correct this legacy using the strength of DOJ’s enforcement authorities to target polluters.

“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,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a press conference Thursday. “In partnership with EPA, our new OEJ will serve as the central hub for our efforts to advance our comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy.” 

A September, 2021 analysis from the EPA found that under 2 degree warming scenarios, Black and African American individuals are 34 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected childhood asthma rate increases, and are 40 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest increases in extreme temperature related deaths. Hispanic and Latino communities are 43 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected reduction to labor hours due to extreme temperatures under 2 degrees of warming, the report continues.

So, what will these new climate cops do? There’s plenty: Criminal prosecutions for pollution dropped by 70 and 50 percent for Clean Water and Clean Air Act violations, respectively, during the Trump administration, a 2020 report from the Environmental Crimes Project at the University of Michigan Law School found. The office, to which the President’s budget allocated $1.4 million, aims to make up for this complacency, following a January, 2021 order from President Joe Biden directing the attorney general to “ensure comprehensive attention to environmental justice throughout the Department of Justice” and coordinate environmental justice activities among attorneys’ offices nationwide. 

The office’s creation is part of a broader environmental justice enforcement strategy to remedy systemic environmental violations that also includes a directive to create a new set of tools for assessing environmental justice impacts during investigations; to designate environmental justice coordinators across U.S. Attorney’s Offices; and to create local and regional environmental enforcement task forces. 

Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney in the DOJ’s Environmental Enforcement section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division has been tapped to helm the OEJ.

The office will also strive to “make use of all available legal tools” to address environmental justice violations, according to a memo sent to DOJ employees on Thursday. That means using federal Title VI civil rights protections, which prohibit racial discrimination, in environmental cases, and using the DOJ Civil Division, the official legal representation for the US government and its agencies, in environmental justice cases

Environmental groups applauded the creation of the office as part of a growing investment in correcting a legacy of environmental injustice across the country. 

“Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to violations of environmental laws and experience the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” League of Conservation Voters deputy legislative director Madeleine Footesaid in a statement. “These actions today should help reverse the Trump administration’s turning a blind eye to those communities in need of relief.” 

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