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Earth Day Blog: Nurturing Communities and the Environment Where They Live

April 22, 2016

Courtesy of Assistant Attorney General John Cruden for the Environment and Natural Resources Division

Acting Associate Attorney General Bill Baer and Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Environment and Natural Resources Division plant a tree in honor of Earth DayToday, on Earth Day, I was pleased to join Acting Associate Attorney General Bill Baer and a team of volunteers from the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) and the D.C. Green Corps at Marvin Gaye Park.  Over the past 13 years, we have seen this neighborhood begin to flourish as planted saplings became trees, vacant lots grew into gardens and a place once considered unsafe and left behind, has grown to become a destination for playing children and nature seeking adults. 

It is amazing to see how nurturing the environment can nurture a community and even help make it a safer place to live.  In fact, as Acting Associate Attorney General Baer said today, thanks to the work of Washington Parks and People, which helps to transform and preserve urban areas for future generations through revitalization activities like this one, that is exactly what has happened to Marvin Gaye Park.  The Justice Department has recently awarded a Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program grant to this neighborhood, through the D.C. Trust and Washington Parks and People will be an anchor partner in the effort to use the park as a hub of advancing lasting and comprehensive alternatives to juvenile crime.

This is my second year as Assistant Attorney General of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.  I have previously had the honor and privilege of spending over two decades at the Department of Justice.  I have witnessed the extraordinary efforts of public servants who work countless hours representing the United States in federal courts across our great nation.  Those career professionals who have dedicated their lives to public service are the backbone of the division: upholding our laws, improving the environment, protecting our natural resources and ensuring the health and safety of our citizens.

So today, I was also honored to announce the release of the division’s 2015 Accomplishments report.  In this report you will find the highlights of the environment division’s exceptional success in 2015.  A key accomplishment of the past year was the negotiation of a historic settlement in the Deepwater Horizon litigation that resolves civil claims of the United States and five Gulf States against BP, arising from the April 20, 2010, blowout of the Macondo well and the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  BP will pay the U.S. and the Gulf States more than $20 billion.

This resolution is extraordinary in its size and scope.  It is the largest settlement with a single entity in the Department of Justice’s history, including the largest civil penalty ever awarded under the Clean Water Act, the largest ever natural resources damages settlement and massive economic damages payments to our State partners.  The final settlement includes a comprehensive natural resource damages restoration plan that will guide the recovery of the Gulf for many years into the future.  Joining in the consent decrees were the governors and attorneys general of the five Gulf States and five federal agencies. 

The division continues to partner with many states to enforce our nation’s pollution laws, prosecute traffickers in protected wildlife and defend challenges to critical infrastructure projects.  In Duke Energy, subsidiaries of the nation’s largest utility pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.  They also agreed to pay a $68 million criminal fine and spend $34 million on environmental projects and land conservation to benefit rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia.  Charges in this case resulted from the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina, in February 2014.  

One of my goals for the year was advancing environmental justice and I have worked closely with the division’s counselor for environmental justice to achieve that goal.  ENRD is a key member of the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice and, at our request this group agreed to establish a new subgroup focused on Native American issues.  We have provided training, participated in community outreach, integrated environmental justice principles into our litigation and prepared a comprehensive plan of action.  And, we have now delivered on specific cases, such as the litigation described in this report concerning the Four Corners Power Plant, located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.  The consent decree we reached in this important Clean Air Act case requires the owner of the coal-fi red power plant to install state-of-the-art pollution controls to eliminate harmful pollution.  While that act alone will dramatically improve the lives of the Native Americans in the area, the settlement also provides for a health care trust fund and the replacement of the tribes’ wood-burning stoves with modern energy-efficient stoves.

ENRD also obtained many favorable decisions while defending challenges to federal agency actions.  For example, the division defended the President’s Clean Power Plan, which addresses the Nation’s most important and urgent environmental challenge, climate change.  The division will continue to defend that rule in 2016.  The division also successfully defended EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.  This ground-breaking rule requires states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power plant emissions that contribute to ozone and fi ne particle pollution in other states.  

Another important priority of mine has been the critical work the division does to combat illegal wildlife trafficking, an area that is also a high priority for the entire Administration.  Along with senior leadership from the Departments of State and the Interior, I am a co-chair of the Task Force to Combat Wildlife Trafficking.  The task force is comprised of 17 federal agencies and offices that seek through coordinated efforts to bring a “whole of government” approach to combatting the pernicious trade in wildlife that is decimating some of our most iconic species.  This year I testified on the issue before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and was honored to lead the U.S. delegation to the Kasane Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, held in Botswana.  Our wildlife enforcement activities are at an all-time high, with significant prosecutions in a multitude of cases, including United States v. Xiao Ju Guan.  Guan was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in an on-line scheme to traffic in and smuggle from the United States to China 16 libation cups carved from rhinoceros horn and valued at more than $1 million.  

These are only a few examples of the extraordinary work of the division.  Every day that I come to work, I am awed by the warmth, intelligence and dedication of the women and men who work in this great division.  And today at Marvin Gaye Park, I was also again awed by the spirit and dedication they have shown each year by coming back and putting their hands to work in this community.


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