The Justice Department has plenty of options under existing environmental laws to help local communities long suffering from air or water pollution even without an environmental justice statute, the head of a new federal environmental justice litigation team said Tuesday.
“Sure, it might be helpful to have a statute or regulation at some point that addresses how environmental justice is dealt with across the government,” Matt Silverman, chief of environmental litigation in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, said during a webinar on enforcement held by Bracewell LLP.
But there are ample enforcement tools to improve environmental protection for vulnerable communities under existing laws, from Superfund cleanups to federal drinking water protections, said Silverman, who heads the recently launched Environmental Justice Team for the Eastern District’s Civil Division.
The team was launched in June in the wake of President Joe Biden’s January executive order directing agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their missions and act to address climate change. The order also called for strengthening or standing up new environmental justice monitoring and enforcement offices at EPA, the Justice Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“This is a whole-of-government approach to every agency down to little agencies you’ve never heard of,” Silverman said. “All have the same charge under the executive order to advance environmental justice in all of their activities and that extends not just to enforcement” but also to infrastructure such as airports, environmental cleanups, and permitting actions.
First Team Launched
The new team aims to enhance enforcement “by addressing disproportionate environmental, health, economic and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said in a June 24 announcement.
The team would reinforce existing efforts to protect those “who are disproportionately burdened by environmental and health hazards,” she said.
The Eastern District of New York was the first U.S. attorneys office “to assemble a team specifically” for environmental justice issues, Silverman said, bringing together assistant U.S. attorneys and litigation counsel.
The district oversees enforcement, including of environmental laws, in a region encompassing the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island in New York City as well as Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties.
The team’s focus includes child lead exposure, clean air, and the protection of groundwater, surface waters, and wetlands, coordinating efforts with the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.