The Department of Justice announced a trio of major environmental justice actions on Thursday, including the launch of a new office and the resurrection of a popular enforcement tool scrapped during the Trump administration.
A “comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy” was issued alongside the Justice Department’s first-ever Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference.
Supplemental environmental projects, or SEPs, will also be brought back through an interim final rule. Once popular as an enforcement tool, SEPs were scrapped under President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency as a means to settle industry violations through community environmental projects.
The initiatives will tackle environmental crime in overburdened communities that have long “faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve,” Garland said.
“Together with our Civil Rights Division, Office for Access to Justice, Office of Tribal Justice, and United States Attorneys’ offices, OEJ will prioritize meaningful and constructive engagement with the communities most affected by environmental crime and injustice,” he said.
Congressional Democrats hailed the action. “With a plethora of legal enforcement mechanisms, the DOJ is well positioned to help advance our shared EJ priorities and make a meaningful difference in impacted communities,” Reps. Donald McEachin of Virginia, Nanette Barragán of California, Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona said in a joint statement.
The DOJ’s environmental justice office will be led by acting director Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney in the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan hailed the Justice Department’s restoration of SEPs, calling them an important part of agency enforcement for more than three decades.
“Restoring the use of this powerful tool will advance the enforcement work EPA has been working hard to strengthen since President [Joe] Biden took office,” he said at the news conference.
SEPs are environmentally beneficial projects companies can volunteer to do as part of a settlement for alleged violations, sometimes in exchange for lower penalties.
Industry, government, and nonprofit lawyers generally favor SEPs as an effective way to direct benefits to areas affected by environmental violations and speed up settlement negotiations. Many environmentalists have also supported the use of SEPs, arguing they help make improvements in local communities.
The Trump administration issued a memo in 2020 limiting the use of SEPs, which ENRD withdrew shortly after Biden took office.
Even before the Trump administration guidance, the number of supplemental environmental projects fell by 48% from fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2018, according to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.
That reduction cut against the wishes of many in the business community, who favored the projects as a way of lowering their fines while also letting them perform projects that improve their public image.