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Justice Department boosts focus on environmental cases that harm the poor

EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a press conference at the Department of Justice May 5, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the press conference U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Regan announced that the Department of Justice will place increased emphasis on the enforcement of environmental cases that disproportionately harm marginalized and low income communities.Win McNamee/Getty

The Justice Department is ramping up enforcement of environmental cases that officials say disproportionately harm poor and marginalized communities, creating an office to help coordinate investigations and expanding the breadth of litigation against companies and local or state governments that appear to violate federal laws or commit civil infractions.

Appearing at a joint news conference Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said their agencies would work together on the initiative. It aims to build on an executive order issued by President Joe Biden days after his inauguration that called for an "all of government" approach to environmental justice.


Biden has pledged to make addressing these historical inequities central to his presidency, though many activists say he is yet to deliver on this promise. Some agencies, such as the departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services, have strongly embraced the effort, while others lag behind.

Cynthia M. Ferguson, a senior litigation counsel who has worked for more than two decades in Justice's environmental and natural resources division, has been named acting director of the Office of Environmental Justice. Biden has requested $1.47 million in funding for that office in fiscal 2023.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta has developed an eight-page strategy document that will require each of the 93 U.S. attorney's offices across the country to designate an environmental justice coordinator and bolster training and education for staffers, officials said.

In prepared remarks, Gupta said the strategy "underscores the department's commitment to ensuring that all Americans have access to clean water to drink, clean air to breathe and healthy thriving communities to live, work and raise their families. That is the heart of environmental justice."

Experts have said neighborhoods with higher concentrations of racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged are more likely to suffer health problems caused by environmental pollution or degradation.


A report last month that said 45 million Americans are breathing dirtier air because of racial redlining. The March study found that compared with White people, Black and Latino Americans live with more smog and fine particulate matter from cars, trucks, buses, coal plants and other nearby industrial sources, in areas where disadvantaged populations were concentrated because of housing discrimination.

Curent reports show Black people are nearly four times as likely to die from exposure to pollution than White people. According to "Fumes Across the Fence-Line," a study by the Clean Air Task Force, African Americans are exposed to 38% more polluted air than White Americans, and they are 75% more likely to live in communities that border an industrial plant or factory.

Under Garland, the Justice Department already has pursued a number of high-profile environmental cases. Last fall, the department reached a $1 million settlement with New York City's education department over potentially harmful emissions from oil-fired boilers in the schools. Justice also launched an investigation into whether rural Lowndes County in Alabama discriminated against Black residents by denying them access to adequate sanitation systems and exposing them to increased health risks.

But officials said the new strategy would provide more tools to aid investigations and litigation. Garland also will rescind a Trump-era ban on the use of supplemental environmental projects, which will allow the Justice Department to pursue settlements in which companies or jurisdictions agree to pay for programs or projects to help communities manage and treat public health problems that result from their actions.


Justice officials pointed to a 2007 settlement in which Valero Energy agreed to pay $232 million in new pollution controls at three refineries, as well as $1 million to support a local health center in Port Arthur, Texas, to diagnose and treat asthma and other illnesses caused by the pollution.

Also Thursday, the White House announced the appointment of Jalonne L. White-Newsome, an academic who has worked with activists and in the philanthropic sector, as senior director of environmental justice for its Council on Environmental Quality.

White-Newsome replaces Cecilia Martinez as Biden's top environmental justice official, four months after Martinez resigned and said she was "dangerously close to burnout." Martinez was the first person to hold the role.

Biden has pledged to spend 40% of new federal funding for infrastructure and environmental projects in communities that bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to pollution. At least $55 billion from the infrastructure law is slated to improve water facilities, including $15 billion to remove lead pipes that have contaminated drinking water in cities including Flint, Mich. Another $1 billion will help clean up neglected Superfund sites, including an abandoned chemical manufacturing plant that has stymied revitalization efforts in Newark.

About $28 million was dedicated to preventive coastal erosion on Native American land on the Kenai River bluffs in Alaska, $65 billion has been dedicated to improving the nation's electricity grid, and $1 billion is meant to reconnect communities, many of them Black, that were dissected by massive highway projects that started in the early 1960s.


But the administration has yet to spell out how it will deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to communities in states with Republican governors who are opposed to its mission. Activists on the ground in states such as Louisiana, Alabama and Texas have said they doubt they will ever see such funding.

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The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears contributed to this report.