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Top EPA Lawyer Vows More Aggressive Civil Rights Enforcement (1)

Aug. 5, 2022, 4:35 PMUpdated: Aug. 5, 2022, 8:00 PM

The EPA is continuing to build up its civil rights enforcement office, part of an ongoing effort to move from a reactive to a proactive program, the agency’s top lawyer said Friday.

“EPA has the authority to launch compliance reviews without waiting for a complaint, and we’ve done that,” said Jeffrey Prieto, the Environmental Protection Agency’s general counsel, speaking at the Texas Environmental Superconference in Austin.

Prieto’s comments align with those of Lilian Dorka, director of the EPA’s external civil rights compliance office, who recently told Bloomberg Law the office wants to aggressively look for civil rights violations, rather than waiting for complaints. Both the EPA and the Justice Department included civil rights goals in their recent strategic plans.

Dorka has said her office is fielding “more complaints than ever before” under the Biden administration, with more than 20 since the fiscal year began.

Dorka also spoke at the Austin conference on Friday, saying the EPA is increasingly reaching out to industry to work together on civil rights enforcement.

“We’re doing more of that because, obviously, folks want to do the right thing,” she said. “I really do think that at the end of the day—and what I mean by that is the end of the long day, that we all will face one day—we all want to leave behind a legacy that we’re proud of.”

West Virginia Decision

In the meantime, the EPA’s lawyers are continuing to scrutinize the Supreme Court’s recent West Virginia v. EPA decision that found the agency didn’t have permission from Congress to regulate on a sector-wide basis under the Clean Air Act, according to Prieto.

An EPA spokeswoman recently said the agency “will continue to conduct outreach in 2022 on greenhouse gas rules for new and existing power plants and propose further rulemaking under Clean Air Act section 111 in early 2023.”

Prieto further said the Office of General Counsel’s top to-do items include providing legal support to the agency as it implements the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, which directs the EPA to reduce hydrofluorocarbons; and helping the agency’s regulators develop a new definition of federal waters.

He also stressed that the EPA’s environmental justice work is based on hard science, studies, and analysis. That type of data is important because it provides a legal justification for policy decisions and enforcement actions the EPA undertakes.

“The data speaks loud, the data speaks clear, in terms of what we’re experiencing as a nation [and] what people are experiencing in their communities,” Prieto said.

(Updates with comments from Lilian Dorka in 5th and 6th paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at