The Justice Department is launching a new Office of Environmental Justice, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Thursday, which will seek to redress health risks from climate change faced by minorities and low-income people in the United States.
“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 at a news conference on Thursday.
“For far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve,” Garland said, adding that the Justice Department “will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm.”
Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney who currently works in the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, will be the acting director of the new office.
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The effort comes as the Biden administration seeks to elevate matters of environmental justice and take action on the president's campaign-trail promises, which included establishing a whole-of-government approach to prioritizing the harmful effects of climate change.
Garland said on Thursday that the OEJ will serve as the Justice Department’s "central hub for our efforts to advance our comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy.”
The Justice Department also said it is working to restore the use of supplemental environmental projects, an enforcement tool that can be used in some settlement agreements to help remedy harm caused by violations of federal environmental law and, at times, compensate victims.
The supplemental environmental projects were terminated during the Trump administration, which argued that they were inconsistent with current law and a “departure from sound enforcement practices.”
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But Garland sought to dispute that on Thursday, noting that the projects “bring environmental and public health benefits to the communities most directly affected by the underlying violations” and “are particularly powerful tools for advancing environmental justice.”