Pursuing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill case will be the leading 2011 enforcement priority for the Dept. of Justice's environmental division, says Assistant Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno, the unit's chief.

Oil Spill a Top 2011 Priority for Justice Dept. Environmental Unit
Photo: U.S. Dept. of Justice
Moreno, shown here with Attorney General Eric Holder, will focus heavily on Gulf oil spill

Moreno, who heads the environment and natural resources division, said in a Jan. 13 speech that other construction-related areas of emphasis will include cases involving municipal sewage-treatment problems and defending against challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency's new greenhouse-gas regulations.

Moreno told a District of Columbia Bar Association meeting that her unit will continue to pursue the oil-spill lawsuit DOJ filed on Dec. 15 against BP, Transocean and other defendants.

She also said Justice is handling defenses against oil spill-related lawsuits filed against federal agencies and individuals.

Moreno said, "Our top enforcement priority is to hold fully accountable those responsible for the tragic loss of life and disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."

She added that "Deepwater Horizon has become the division's top priority and will remain so for the foreseeable future."

But Moreno did not disclose any further developments or next steps in the oil-spill case, citing DOJ's involvement in the litigation. She said, "Our civil and criminal investigations [of the oil spill] are ongoing," but did not provide further details.

Moreno, who was sworn in to her post in November 2009, said that attorneys in almost every section of her division are working on oil-spill matters. But even with the heavy demands on the unit's personnel, she added that "we remain focused on all of our core responsibilities."

Beyond the oil spill, other priorities include Clean Water Act cases that deal with untreated-sewage discharges from aging sewer systems. DOJ announced several major settlements in such cases in 2010. The largest settlement was with a Cleveland-area sewer agency that will result in about $3 billion worth of new pollution controls.

More such actions are to come, Moreno said.

In the air pollution area, she said her division is "vigorously defending" against challenges in various courts to EPA's greenhouse-gas rules and the agency's finding that such pollution "endangers" public health.

Another continued Clean Air Act-related priority will be enforcing the New Source Review program, she noted.

Moreno also said that the department will seek cases that deal with "company-wide" Clean Air Act violations, such as 2010 settlements with Saint-Gobain Containers and cement producer Lafarge Co.

Moreover, DOJ will pursue air-pollution cases that span an industry sector, and cited the department's petroleum-refinery initiative, which included a settlement last year with Murphy Oil Co.

In addition, Moreno noted that her division will continue its emphasis across many sectors, on promoting environmental justice, which is an effort to mitigate the impact of environmental problems on low-income communities. She noted that such neighborhoods "often face disproportionate pollution burdens."