The U.S. Justice Dept. plans to launch a new office within its Environment and Natural Resources Division that will focus on enforcing environmental laws in communities that are most affected by pollution and environmental-related crimes, administration officials said May 5. 

The new Office of Environmental Justice is one component of an administration-wide environmental justice strategy that also includes restoring the use of supplemental environmental projects, or SEPs, in communities as a key component of enforcement actions. Such project are environmentally beneficial added investments that a defendant agrees to in exchange for a lower civil penalty. They are not directly related to environmental infractions being settled but offset harm they have caused, EPA says.

Justice on May 5 released an interim final rule reinstating those projects, which had been in use for decades but were nixed in 2017 during the Trump administration. 

“Although violations of our environmental laws can happen anywhere, communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities often bear the brunt of harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a news conference at the Justice Dept.

Garland said the Office of Environmental Justice will serve as “the central hub” to guide and advance the agency’s environmental justice enforcement strategy. He added that the office will prioritize cases that will have the greatest impact on communities most affected by or at risk for environmental harm.

One such case is in Alabama, where the department announced in November that it had launched a federal civil rights investigation into public health outbreaks in Lowndes County, a predominantly Black community that has never had a municipal wastewater treatment system. News reports have highlighted cases of sewage piling up in backyards of homes because of improperly managed septic tanks and cesspools. 

DOJ works in tandem with EPA’s office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to negotiate settlements when criminal violations occur. The agencies in March negotiated a settlement with Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. LP, which agreed to make upgrades and perform compliance measures estimated to cost $118 million to resolve allegations that it violated the Clean Air Act and state air pollution control laws at three petrochemical manufacturing facilities  in Cedar Bayou, Port Arthur, and Sweeney, Texas. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan noted that SEPs are critical to securing “tangible public health benefits for communities harmed by environmental violations.” They include projects to abate lead paint hazards in housing, or installation of enhanced air filtration systems at schools in heavily industrialized areas, he said.