Axios: Senators seek funding for DOJ’s new environmental justice arm

By Russell Contreras

Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) want Congress to give the Department of Justice about $9 million to help its new environmental justice division.

The big picture: The DOJ announced last week it would create the Office of Environmental Justice and launch an enforcement strategy to protect communities of color against environmental crimes.

Details: Padilla and Durbin are spearheading an effort to earmark $1.4 million for the Office for Environmental Justice and allocate an additional $6.5 million for DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

  • The two senators wrote a letter Wednesday to a subcommittee signed by other senators seeking the funds for the new initiatives.
  • “Environmental hazards like air, water, and land pollution disproportionately affect communities that have been historically marginalized, such as Tribal communities, low-income populations, and communities of color,” the senators wrote.

Between the lines: Study after study shows communities of color are exposed to more air and water pollution, lead poisoning, and toxic waste than more affluent, white neighborhoods.

  • landmark study published last year in Science Advances found that Black, Latino, and Asian Americans face higher levels of hazardous particulate exposure than white Americans, regardless of income.
  • This is due to their proximity to industry and construction sites and the associated emissions from cars and diesel trucks, researchers found. Overall, this pollution causes up to 200,000 excess deaths annually in the U.S., researchers found — disproportionately people of color.

Flashback: The DOJ in November launched an environmental justice investigation into whether Alabama’s state and local health departments discriminated against Black residents.

  • The investigation is examining whether the departments’ policies have caused Black residents in Lowndes, Alabama, to “have diminished access to adequate sanitation systems.”
  • It marked the DOJ’s first Title VI environmental justice investigation for one of the department’s funding recipients.

Last April, Padilla called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to improve enforcement of environmental laws in Central California and asked the DOJ to explain non-prosecution agreements that spare some polluters of criminal liability.

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