Biden to Crack Down on Polluters in Poor, Minority Areas

FBiden’s administration has fulfilled its campaign promises and launched a comprehensive enforcement strategy Thursday to make sure industrial polluters are held accountable for any damage caused to minority and poor communities.

The strategy includes creation of an Office of Environmental Justice within the Justice Department to focus on “fenceline communities” that have been exposed to air and water pollution from chemical plants, refineries and other industrial sites.

In the plan, a program which allowed industry to pay fines as part of a settlement was reinstated. This permitted community activities like river cleanups and health clinics as well as other programs that promote environmental health or protection. Presidents of both sides used the program before it was eliminated by Trump’s administration.

“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,’’ Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference.

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

“No American should have to live, work or send their kids to school in a neighborhood that carries an unfair share of environmental hazards,” added Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.

In 2020, President Joe Biden promised that he would create an Environmental Justice Division within the Justice Department to address environmental justice concerns in an all-ofgovernment manner.

A related announcement was made by the White House Thursday. Jalonne White Newsome will head environmental justice initiatives at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Cecilia Martinez, who retired in January, was succeeded by White-Newsome.

White-Newsome is a Michigan entrepreneur and the CEO of Empowering a Green Environment and Economy. This consulting company focuses on climate change and public health, as well as environmental and racial equality.

CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory called White-Newsome “a strong and effective champion for communities that have been overburdened by pollution and subjected to decades of environmental injustice.” Her ability to “listen deeply, bring people together and find creative solutions will be invaluable,” Mallory said.

Garland and Gupta stated that the enforcement strategy, which was unveiled on Thursday, is meant to direct the work of all employees in the Justice Department.

The new office “will prioritize meaningful and constructive engagement with the communities most affected by environmental crime and injustice,” Garland said. “Whenever possible, these efforts will respond directly to community needs and concerns.”

Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Regan said the “partnership” between his agency and the Justice Department “has never been stronger” and will ensure that the federal government does all it can “to protect overburdened and underserved communities across America.”

Regan had previously announced a number of enforcement measures in January, to combat air pollution and unfit drinking water in Louisiana. Regan also visited other Gulf Coast states in November.

The plan includes unannounced inspections of chemical plants, refineries and other industrial sites and installation of air monitoring equipment in Louisiana’s “chemical corridor” to enhance enforcement at a series of chemical and plastics plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This region is home to many cancer hotspots that are well above the national average.

The EPA sent a notice to Jackson, Mississippi, stating that the city’s aging, overwhelmed drinking water system is in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The agency stated that it will continue to clean up creosote contamination at a Houston site now owned by Union Pacific Railroad. The site has been linked to higher than normal cancer rates in the historically Black neighborhood in the city’s Fifth Ward.

Since March 2021, when he assumed the helm of EPA, Regan made environmental justice a top priority. The weeklong “Journey to Justice” tour in November was intended to highlight areas in the American South that have long been marginalized and overburdened by pollution.

Biden asked for $1.4million to support environmental justice in his budget proposal. Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney in the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division will serve as acting director. According to the Justice Department, the office will assist in environmental justice litigations and investigations as well as work with local communities with concerns about environmental justice.

A rule being published in the Federal Register will restore the department’s ability to use Supplemental Environmental Projects, or SEPs, as part of settlements with corporate or industrial polluters. They are designed to provide environmental and public health benefits for communities directly affected.

The settlement reached in 2007 with Texas-based oil company Valero involved a $4.25m penalty and $232,000,000 in pollution controls at Texas refineries. It was ordered to pay at least $1,000,000 to improve the efforts of Port Arthur’s Texas health center to diagnose and treat respiratory issues such as asthma.

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