DOJ attorney says feds' focus on environmental justice is 'reinvigorated'

Alejandro de los Rios Feb. 10, 2011, 12:28pm


Department of Justice attorney Patrice Simms told a gathering of defense lawyers in New Orleans today that the federal government's focus on environmental justice has become "reinvigorated."

"We stand at the threshold at a new chapter in our efforts of creating environmental justice as a reality," Simms said during a speech before a DRI-sponsored toxic tort conference.

Simms outlined the history and values of environmental justice from when it was conceived in the 1970s, to the direct federal mandates issued to pursue environmental justice in the 1990s, and the government's recent renewed commitment to the cause.

Simms serves as deputy assistant attorney general to the DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD).

As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency and Simms, the underlying principles of environmental justice "is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies."

Simms said that the pursuit of environmental justice has been pushed through studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s showing that a disproportionate amount of low-income and minority neighborhoods were being discriminated against or felt discriminatory effects from corporations violating EPA standards.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 which prioritized environmental issues in low income and minority neighborhoods. Simms said that, under President Barack Obama, environmental justice has once again become a key federal issue.

"Things are happening," Simms said. "The inter-agency working group has become reinvigorated."

Simms pointed out that the DOJ relies "on our clients to adjust our priorities and, in that sense, we are not in control of our own docket."

He went on to explain that federal agencies like the EPA are charged with identifying, investigating and referring cases to the DOJ.

The EPA and the ENRD are both working to further integrate environmental justice policies and principles into their work, Simms said.

The EPA will be doing it by calling for greater strategies to incorporate environmental justice, as well as looking into permanent policy and rule-making with environmental justice in mind, he said.

According to Simms, the DOJ has also made environmental justice a priority and is coordinating the ENRD with its Civil Rights division to incorporate environmental justice into litigation and policy work.

Some of the examples Simms pointed to, where environmental justice principles were implemented, included a case in which the EPA entered into a consent decree with the city of Kansas City, Mo., requiring the city to spend $2.5 billion to improve its sewer system.

In that case, it was found that the most antiquated pipes that caused sewage to back up in basements were concentrated in the lower-income and minority sections of Kansas City.

The city was required to direct at least $1.6 million to immediately improve the sewage system in the areas affected most.

Another consent decree the EPA reached recently was with Murphy Oil.

In that case, Simms said, the oil company was required to improve its pollution-prevention systems at refineries in Wisconsin and Louisiana. The order also mandated that Murphy Oil place air quality monitors by its refineries that broadcast air pollution levels live to a Web site.

"It is our duty to vigorously pursue the enforcement of environmental law," he said. "But we will work with you to pursue solutions that are mutually agreeable."

Simms said that companies should confront environmental issues within their communities head on and that a "good relationship with your community makes good sense."

He said that corporations should employ the same tactics as the federal government in engaging community leaders and working to make sure their concerns and values are heard and considered.

"No effort to address the issue of environmental justice can be made successfully without the proactive involvement by industry," Simms said. "This is a view shared by the Department of Justice, EPA and leaders in the environmental justice community."

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