The Department of Justice is establishing a new “Office of Environmental Justice.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland made the announcement at a press conference with EPA Administrator Michael Regan Thursday. Garland said that the new office, which will also be known by the initialism OEJ, would “oversee and help guide the Justice Department’s wide-ranging environmental justice efforts.”
The office was created as part of the Department’s “comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy,” in compliance with the Biden administration’s January 2021 executive order directing the Attorney General to develop such a strategy in conjunction with the EPA. Garland said that OEJ would initially be led by Acting Director Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney from the Environmental Enforcement Section of the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“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 said in remarks at the conference. “In partnership with EPA, our new OEJ will serve as the central hub for our efforts to advance our comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy. In our environmental efforts, we will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm. And together with our Civil Rights Division, Office for Access to Justice, Office of Tribal Justice, and United States Attorneys’ Offices, OEJ will prioritize meaningful and constructive engagement with the communities most affected by environmental crime and injustice.”
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta outlined how the OEJ would be part of implementing the Justice Department’s environmental justice strategy. “The strategy directs department components to prioritize cases that reduce environmental harms on overburdened and underserved communities, including communities of color, Tribal populations and low-income rural and urban communities,” Gupta said. “To that end, department components, with the support from the new Office of Environmental Justice, will be tasked with developing protocols to assess the environmental justice impacts of their investigations. We also know that securing environmental justice demands the meaningful involvement of affected communities in the decisions that impact them. So, the strategy directs the new Office of Environmental Justice to work to build deeper connections with communities that are affected by violations of environmental laws.”
Gupta also said that the broader strategy also directs all 93 United States Attorneys to designate an “environmental justice coordinator” to identify “areas of concern” within their jurisdictions, and to establish procedures for the public to report them. Gupta added that the strategy would also require the Justice Department to establish “environmental justice education programs” and training for personnel.
The Justice Department’s new office represents the latest example of the Biden administration prioritizing climate change as part of its agenda. The Biden administration announced in January that it was going to spend $5.5 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to advance “environmental justice” by working to “better protect communities from climate change, and protect vital ecosystems and the people and businesses throughout the country that rely on them.”
The Biden administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 would also allocate $44.9 billion to “to tackle the climate crisis,” including $11 billion for international climate spending, particularly in developing countries.