House and Senate Democrats proposed legislation this week that would establish a more robust environmental justice office and a new section focused on tackling environmental crimes within the Department of Justice.
The Biden administration defines "environmental justice" as the "fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development of environmental laws, regulations and policies."
The Justice Department already has an Office of Environmental Justice that seeks to "protect overburdened and underserved communities from the harm caused by environmental crimes." However, Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-Calif., said her bill is needed to give the Justice Department the full range of tools it needs to hold companies accountable to "low-income communities and communities of color burdened by pollution."
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"A whole of government approach to environmental justice must include enforcement by the Department of Justice that prioritizes the right of all communities to clean air and clean water," Barragán said.
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According to a summary of the bill, DOJ’s new, expanded environmental justice office would be tasked with initiating legal action to enforce environmental laws that "impact environmental justice and civil rights," and enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to investigate "civil rights complaints related to environmental justice."
Additionally, the DOJ’s new Environmental Justice Section would specifically coordinate with other federal agencies and state and local governments on environmental justice matters. That section would also distribute $50 million grants each year to groups that help state and local officials "hold polluters accountable."
Barragán’s bill was introduced in the House with 20 Democrats, and the same bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif. "Every federal agency has a responsibility to provide justice to communities who have been overburdened by exposure to toxic pollution," Padilla said.
Several agencies already have environmental justice offices up and running. The Environmental Protection Agency’s office is already distributing grants and technical assistance to groups fighting for environmental justice.
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The Department of Health and Human Services in May started an Office of Environmental Justice, which sits in the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. The Department of Agriculture also deals with environmental justice through its Environmental Management Division.
Those department-level efforts are driven by President Biden, who has pushed to involve several federal agencies in the effort to ensure that "the voices, perspectives, and lived experiences of environmental justice communities are heard in the White House and reflected in the priorities, policies, investments, and decision-making of the Federal Government."