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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks Launching Comprehensive Environmental Justice Strategy


Washington, DC
United States

Good afternoon.

I am grateful to Administrator Regan for joining us here at the Justice Department.

Today, I am announcing three actions that the Department is taking to advance environmental justice.

First, consistent with the President’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, we are issuing a comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta will discuss that strategy in just a moment.

Second, I am pleased to announce that we are launching the Justice Department’s first-ever Office of Environmental Justice to oversee and help guide the Justice Department’s wide-ranging environmental justice efforts. Like all parts of government, it will get its own acronym: OEJ.

And third, the Justice Department is issuing an Interim Final Rule that will restore the use of an important law enforcement tool – supplemental environmental projects – subject to new guidelines and limitations that I will also be issuing today.

Administrator Regan and I know that the communities most impacted by environmental harm are not isolated in any one part of our country. Environmental crime and injustice touch communities in all our cities, towns, rural areas, and on Tribal lands.

Although violations of our environmental laws can happen anywhere, communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution, and climate change.

They include fenceline communities, where exposure to toxic air pollutants have caused scores of cancer-related deaths.

They include communities where students have been exposed to harmful emissions from boilers in their public schools.

They include communities where infectious diseases have spread because of inadequate wastewater management.

And for far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve.

In partnership with EPA, our new OEJ will serve as the central hub for our efforts to advance our comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy.

In our environmental efforts, we will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm.

And 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.

Whenever possible, these efforts will respond directly to community needs and concerns.

The new OEJ will be led by Acting Director Cynthia Ferguson, an experienced attorney from the Environmental Enforcement Section of our Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Cynthia has more than two decades of experience at DOJ advancing environmental justice. Prior to her legal career at DOJ, Cynthia was a mechanical engineer. She has the experience, passion, dedication, common sense, and steady hand we need to help steer OEJ in the days ahead.

Finally, today the Justice Department is also issuing an Interim Final Rule that will restore our ability to use supplemental environmental projects to compensate victims and remedy violations of federal environmental laws. Their use will be subject to new guidelines and limitations set forth in a separate memorandum that I am also issuing today.

These are environmentally beneficial projects that a defendant has proposed and agreed to implement as part of a settlement of an enforcement action.

For decades before 2017, both the Justice Department and the EPA relied upon them to compensate victims, remedy harm, punish and deter violations of the environmental laws.

Because these projects bring environmental and public health benefits to the communities most directly affected by the underlying violations, they are particularly powerful tools for advancing environmental justice.

In closing, let me say – as I have said many times before – that the Justice Department has three essential responsibilities: upholding the rule of law, keeping our country safe, and protecting civil rights.

Seeking and securing justice for communities that are disproportionately burdened by environmental harms is a task demanded by all three of those responsibilities.

It is a task we gladly undertake.

I am now pleased to turn the program over to Administrator Regan.

Civil Rights
Updated February 15, 2023