Biden to crack down on polluters in poor and minority areas | News, Sports, Jobs

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a press conference to announce actions to bolster the Biden administration’s environmental justice efforts, Thursday, May 5, 2022, at the Justice Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Following a campaign promise, the Biden administration on Thursday announced a sweeping enforcement strategy aimed at holding industrial polluters accountable for harm to poor and minority communities.

The strategy includes the creation of an Office of Environmental Justice within the Department of Justice to focus on “closing communities” who have been exposed to air and water pollution from chemical plants, refineries and other industrial sites.

The plan also reinstates a dormant program that allowed fines paid by industry as part of a settlement to go to river cleanups, health clinics or other programs that benefit the environment or society. public health. The program was used by presidents of both parties before being phased out in the Trump administration.

“While violations of our environmental laws can occur anywhere, communities of color, Indigenous communities and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the damage caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change” , Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

“And for too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve,” he said.

“No American should have to live, work or send their children to school in a neighborhood that carries an unfair share of environmental risks,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta added.

President Joe Biden promised during the 2020 campaign that he would establish an environmental justice division within the Justice Department and elevate environmental justice issues into a whole-of-government approach.

In a related development, the White House announced Thursday that attorney Jalonne White-Newsome will lead environmental justice efforts at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. White-Newsome succeeds Cecilia Martinez, who resigned in January.

White-Newsome, of Michigan, is the founder and CEO of Empowering a Green Environment and Economy, a consulting firm focused on climate change, public health, and environmental and racial equity.

CEQ President Brenda Mallory called White-Newsome “a strong and effective champion for communities that have been overburdened by pollution and subjected to decades of environmental injustice.”

As for enforcement, the strategy unveiled Thursday aims to guide the work of employees across the Department of Justice, including U.S. attorneys across the country who will begin to refocus on environmental justice issues, said Garland and Gupta.

The new office “will prioritize meaningful and constructive engagement with communities most affected by environmental crime and injustice,” Garland said. “Wherever possible, these efforts will respond directly to community needs and concerns. »

Environmental Protection Agency chief Michael Regan said the “Partnership” between his agency and the Ministry of Justice “has never been stronger” and will ensure that the federal government does all it can “to protect overburdened and underserved communities across America.”

The strategy follows a series of enforcement actions announced by Regan in January to address air pollution, unclean water and other issues affecting minority communities in three Gulf Coast states that Regan visited in November.

The plan includes unannounced inspections of chemical plants, refineries and other industrial sites and the installation of air monitoring equipment in Louisiana. “chemical corridor” to bolster law enforcement at a series of chemical and plastics plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The region contains several hotspots where cancer risks are well above national levels.

The EPA also issued an advisory to the city of Jackson, Mississippi, saying its aging and overflowing drinking water system violates federal drinking water safety law. The agency also said it was moving forward to clean up creosote contamination from a site in Houston that is now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. The site has been linked to high cancer rates in the city’s historically black Fifth Ward neighborhood.

Regan has made environmental justice a priority since taking over as EPA head in March 2021. The week “Journey to Justice” tour in November aimed to shine a light on areas of the southern United States that have long been marginalized and overburdened by pollution.

Biden requested $1.4 million for the office of environmental justice in his budget proposal. Cynthia Ferguson, a lawyer in the ministry’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, will serve as acting director. The office will support environmental justice investigations and litigation and work with communities across the country, the Justice Department said.

Granta Nakayama, a former EPA deputy administrator for enforcement, praised the new office.

“It takes environmental justice from a slogan to an agenda, with metrics to measure progress,” said Nakayama, who led the EPA’s enforcement office in the George W. Bush administration. “He brings all the legal stature and muscle of the Justice Department to focus on “environmental justice.”

A rule published in the Federal Register, meanwhile, will restore the department’s ability to use supplemental environmental projects, or SEPs, in settlements with industrial polluters. The projects aim to bring environmental and public health benefits to the communities directly affected by the underlying violations.

A 2007 settlement with Texas energy company Valero included a $4.25 million fine and $232 million in pollution controls at refineries in Tennessee, Ohio and Texas. The company was to spend at least $1 million to bolster efforts at a health center in Port Arthur, Texas, to diagnose and treat asthma and other respiratory problems.


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