Activists attending the White House’s first-ever Environmental Justice Forum on Wednesday demanded more federal action and more federal dollars for the many causes that fall under the “environmental justice” umbrella, calls that the Obama Administration speakers embraced wholeheartedly.
A telling exchange came during the morning session, “Legal Framework for Advancing Environmental Justice Session,” moderated by Leslie Fields of the Sierra Club. After denouncing “environmental slavery” and “environmental genocide,” attendee Sacoby Wilson of the University of South Carolina asked several questions:
As relates to having lawyers involved in the process, there are many community groups who don’t have access to lawyers. So when you have government agencies, industries, that have their lawyers, when community groups are going to the meeting, they’re naked. They need lawyers, too. So if you’ve got your lawyers, where are my lawyers?
So what efforts are the EPA going to take, what efforts are the DOJ to take, to make sure communities have their lawyers too, who can be the soldiers, and be on the front lines to help those communities be able to activate, to engage, and be able to stop, block and improve, prevent and mitigate – whatever verb you want to use – to make sure they have sustainability and help the community?
Following several other speakers, Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, addressed Wilson’s remarks. She declared the Department of Justice to be “the people’s lawyers,” enforcing environmental laws for “all Americans, not just the affluent.”
We just had a town hall meeting in the Justice Department. We brought, there were about 200 lawyers there, we were to tell them what their role was in environmental justice, what their role was in presenting the interest of the American people.
So you’re going to be seeing more of our lawyers, as we train them out there, talking to you. Because as we’re shaping remedies, as we’re discussing injunctive relief, whether it’s in the context of a settlement, whether we’re talking about supplemental environmental projects, or in court, litigating for enhanced injunctive relief, to try to address some of the cumulative burdens, some of the disproportionate burdens.
I met with corporate counsel, corporate counsel group, recently. You know what we spent almost the whole time talking about? Environmental justice. I told them, they are your neighbors. They need to be good neighbors. And sometimes even just complying with the law, that’s good start, because that means Cynthia and I aren’t going to knock on their door, and tell them they’re in non-compliance, but it’s not everything.
We’ve talked to them about doing more: green technology, green jobs and retrofitting. We’ve told them they need to think about what the needs of the community are, engage in a conversation with their neighbors, to see how they can conduct their business – which we all need, we need the jobs and we need the electricity and everything else – but conduct it in a way that is going to take into account public health and environmental protection.
So I said to them, when we’re talking about injunctive relief with you, looking forward, we’re also going to be talking about enhanced injunctive relief. What more can you do so you go beyond compliance? That’s how we’re trying to be the nation’s environmental lawyers, and to make sure that we bring you into the conversation whenever we can, through public outreach. Not just putting a consent decree on the website, but more, so that we can hear from you, so we can serve you in a better way.
The message then to business (the corporate counsel group she mentioned), is that government’s priority is not the law, per se, but rather using enforcement to force business into enacting the Administration’s political goals. If Congress doesn’t go far enough to elevate “environmental justice” as a matter of policy and law, no problem: The Justice Department will just do it on its own.
How’s that for a jobs agenda?
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