Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Dianna, for that introduction. And thank you to our EPA partners for hosting us and to the Justice Department and EPA teams that organized this event. I want to acknowledge the leadership of our Environment and Natural Resources Division, including Todd Kim, Kate Konschnik and Seth Barsky, who are all here with us today, for everything that ENRD does to advance these important issues. And I want to thank all of you for taking the time to join this event.
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is an opportunity for all of us in the justice system to reflect on the importance of making the system work for survivors of crime. And today’s event gives us an opportunity to take stock of our progress and discuss how we can continue to improve. The theme of this year’s Crime Victims Week is “Survivor Voices: Elevate. Engage. Effect Change.” And I’m thankful that we have with us today survivors of environmental crimes, who are willing to elevate their voices.
I had the privilege of meeting with Joe, Tom and Anthony, along with some of their loved ones, just before this event, and I am inspired by their courage, perseverance, and dedication to raising awareness of environmental crimes. Anthony, Joe and Tom, we are all so grateful that you will be telling your stories shortly.
Without getting ahead of that panel, I want to reflect on just one common theme of their stories. Each of the environmental laws that should have protected these individuals are sometimes belittled as creating needless red tape that raises the cost of doing business. Yet if those laws had been followed in Joe’s case, two men would not have died, and Joe would not have been injured, cleaning a railway car. If they had been followed in Tom’s case, a dozen Americans would not have faced exposure to asbestos, with all the fear that brings. And if they had been followed in Anthony’s case, more than one hundred people would not have been forced from their homes and had their property destroyed during an asbestos clean-up.
These are powerful examples of the work that the environmental laws do to keep Americans safe. When those or any other laws are violated, treating victims with dignity and respect is critical to the Justice Department’s mission and its ability to pursue and achieve justice. That is why the Attorney General issued updated Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance committing the Department to taking a victim-centered, trauma-informed and culturally sensitive approach to advancing criminal justice.
That approach applies with full force to environmental crimes. As everyone in this room knows, environmental crimes harm more than the planet — they harm communities, families and individuals. A worker who is not given the protective gear she needs, a family whose home is exposed to illegal pesticides, a community that lives near a factory spewing unlawful emissions — all of these people may face serious physical, emotional and financial injuries.
Yet for too long, victims of environmental crimes did not receive the resources they need to recover from their harms. For example, victims of environmental crimes may not be eligible for victim compensation programs reserved only for victims of violent crime — notwithstanding that environmental crime victims may have suffered serious harm and losses. That lack of support is unacceptable.
At the beginning of this Administration, EPA and the Department of Justice redoubled our joint efforts to elevate survivors’ voices, engage and effect change by launching the nation’s first-of-its-kind Environmental Crime Victim Assistance Program. The program was built based on the experiences of survivors, from victims’ rights professionals and from those working on environmental crimes investigations and prosecutions.
As part of that program, EPA and Department of Justice staff have partnered with victims’ advocates to raise awareness of environmental crimes. They have engaged communities with environmental justice concerns to ensure those communities’ perspectives are heard. And they have ensured that there are personnel at both agencies who focus on victims’ rights. Thanks to funds provided by DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime, the Program now has a full-time Victim Witness Coordinator, has established a process for victim identification and notification and is training investigative and prosecutorial staff.
Another major priority for today’s event is deepening partnerships with states and localities. Federal prosecution of environmental crime is only part of the solution. So we need to work with governments at all levels, as well as with non-profits engaged on these issues, to develop strategies that support survivors. We need to identify ways to assist environmental crime victims, provide them needed services and ensure they receive restitution, regardless of what jurisdiction is prosecuting the crime.
We also need to go about that work with full awareness that environmental crimes are especially likely to happen in communities that are underserved and where community members may have limited English proficiency. We know that environmental crimes often raise environmental justice issues as well as criminal justice issues. That’s why both the Justice Department and EPA coordinate with our Offices of Environmental Justice to ensure that investigations, prosecutions and victim outreach incorporate environmental justice principles.
Every American deserves clean water to drink, clean air to breathe and healthy, thriving communities where they can live, work and raise their families. And when companies or individuals break our environmental laws, the survivors of those crimes need our support. Today’s conversation will advance that fundamental commitment. I look forward to continuing to work with you to make this program a success. Thank you.