US launches environmental justice office to protect “overburdened and underserved” communities

By on 09/05/2022 | Updated on 09/05/2022
People gather in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida
People being rescued by boat in the badly flooded LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Image courtesy Louisiana National Guard via Flickr

The Biden administration has launched the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), a new office within the US justice department that will address the adverse effects of climate change on vulnerable communities.

The OEJ has been established to serve all Americans affected by climate change but will focus on low-income as well as indigenous and racial minorities shown to suffer disproportionately from extreme weather events.

To coincide with the OEJ launch, Merrick B. Garland, the US attorney general, introduced an environmental justice enforcement strategy that is expected to help guide the justice department in its work going forward.

“The [OEJ] will serve as the central hub for our efforts to advance [the strategy]. We will prioritise the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm,” Garland said.

He also introduced an ‘Interim Final Rule’, the aim of which is to restore settlement agreements with commitments to building new environmental projects where corporate or individual actions have led to violations of communities. Such projects are referred to as ‘supplemental environmental projects’ (SEPs). SEPs are neither compelled by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nor legally required at the federal, state or local level, and as such deliver benefits that exceed compliance obligations.

Read more: Governments doing too little on climate change, say citizens

Michael S. Regan, administrator of the EPA, said that the strategy “epitomises the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to holding polluters accountable as a means to deliver on our environmental justice priorities”. He added that it was critical SEPs were brought into effect “as a tool to secure tangible public health benefits for communities harmed by environmental violations”.

Climate of change

In September last year, the US federal government set up another new office to protect health from climate threats. The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) was created to deal with the impact of climate change on public health across the country, with a similar emphasis to OEJ on vulnerable communities hit with pollution, drought and wildfires. OCCHE is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and was launched following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana in August 2021.

Last month, Biden also beefed up federal requirements to assess the environmental impact of infrastructure projects. The move came in response to their abandonment under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. By reversing Trump’s influence, Biden revived important legal functions that mean government agencies have to assess the negative environmental effects of major infrastructure works. The White House said these requirements would include assessing the consequences of releasing additional pollution into communities that are “already overburdened by polluted air or dirty water”.

Biden’s decision to reintroduce these assessments was broadly welcomed, though it drew criticism from some Republicans who said the reviews would lengthen the time vital infrastructure projects would take to gain approval.

The OEJ will be led by Cynthia Ferguson, an attorney at the United States Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). She has more than ten year’s experience working on environmental justice issues, and has been appointed to the role of acting director.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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