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Barragán & Padilla Introduce Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act

Proposed legislation would create a new Office and Section at the Department of Justice to elevate environmental justice work

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                     

4 October 2022

Contact: Kevin McGuire, 202-538-2386 (mobile)

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA-44) and Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to establish an Office of Environmental Justice and an Environmental Justice Section at the Department of Justice. The legislation will strengthen efforts at the Department to hold polluters in environmental justice communities accountable and support state and local environmental enforcement capacity.  

The Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act builds on the recent announcement by the Department to create a new Office of Environmental Justice. The bill would make this new office permanent and authorize $50 million in grant funding to assist state and local governments with environmental enforcement efforts. The Act also creates a new Section for Environmental Justice within the Environment and Natural Resources Division to bring cases for violations of environmental laws in low-income communities and communities of color burdened by pollution.

“A whole of government approach to environmental justice must include enforcement by the Department of Justice that prioritizes the right of all communities to clean air and clean water. The Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act will strengthen work at the Department of Justice to hold polluters accountable when they violate these rights in low-income communities and communities of color,” said Rep. Barragán. “We also recognize that state and local governments have a critical role to play in the enforcement of local environmental laws, but they are often severely understaffed with limited capacity for oversight and enforcement. This legislation provides resources to strengthen environmental enforcement at all levels of government. It’s time to empower communities to defend themselves against polluting industries.”

“Every federal agency has a responsibility to provide justice to communities who have been overburdened by exposure to toxic pollution,” said Senator Padilla. “I’m committed to advancing a whole-of-government effort to advancing addressing environmental justice and guaranteeing clean air and water for all. Our legislation will ensure that environmental justice is at the forefront of the DOJ’s enforcement work while also boosting capacity within state, local, and Tribal governments to improve their own environmental justice work. This bill is necessary to ensure that DOJ holds polluters accountable for environmental crimes and better works with communities on the front lines of the climate and environmental justice crises.”

The Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act would establish an Office of Environmental Justice and an Environmental Justice Section at the Department of Justice.

The Main Functions of the Environmental Justice Office are:

  • Help the public and nonprofits participate in DOJ’s environmental justice work and mission. 
  • Coordinate across agencies on implementation of the Justice 40 Initiative.
  • Coordinate with state & local governments on addressing environmental justice issues.
    • Provide $50 million in annual grants to boost local and state agency capacity to hold polluters accountable. 
  • Manage a Senior Advisory Council made up of different components at DOJ to advise the Natural Resource Division’s Assistant Attorney General on matters of environmental justice. 

The Main Functions of the Environmental Justice Section are:

  • Initiate legal action to enforce environmental laws that impact environmental justice & civil rights. 
  • Ensure enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to investigate civil rights complaints related to environmental justice. 
  • Coordinate with federal agencies on enforcement, advises agencies on the creation of legally enforceable permits.
  • Work with state & local governments on environmental litigation. 

In the House, Barragán is joined by the following cosponsors: Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Andre Carson (Ind.), Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Adam Schiff (Calif.), Gerry Connolly (Va.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), Dina Titus (Nev.), Troy Carter (La.), Diana DeGette (Colo.), Marie Newman (Ill.), Donald McEachin (Va.), Katie Porter (Calif.), Doris Matsui (Calif.), Mike Levin (Calif.), Richie Torres (N.Y.), Suzanne Bonamici (Ore.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.).  

In the Senate, Padilla is joined by the following cosponsors: Edward Markey (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.)

The following organizations have endorsed the bill: WE Act for Environmental Justice, GreenLatinos, Earthjustice, Azul, Hispanic Access Foundation, Better Watts Initiative, Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Puente Latino Association, Climate Equity Policy Center, Breathe Southern California, Communities for a Better Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, Climate Hawks Vote Civic Action, Moms Clean Air Force, Environmental Defense Fund, California Interfaith Power and Light, Interfaith Power and Light, Coalition for Clean Air.

“We greatly appreciate the leadership of Congresswoman Barragán and Senator Padilla for championing the Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act.  Low-income communities of color are disproportionately impacted by adverse cumulative impacts of pollution.  Not only existing regulations do not sufficiently protect our vulnerable communities and sensitive populations from cumulative harms, but even the existing regulations are not properly enforced as we clearly saw in the case of Exide battery recycling facility in LA, which has inflicted irreversible harm on children of Southeast LA due to years of violation by the company and the neglect of oversight agencies.” said Bahram Fazeli, Director of Research and Policy, Communities for a Better Environment.

“This legislation is an important step toward securing a whole-of-government approach to remedying decades of environmental racism and holding polluting industries accountable for violating the law and harming communities,” said Earthjustice Legislative Director of the Healthy Communities Program Raul Garcia. “Communities of color and those of low-income have fought for decades to address longstanding environmental injustices while the federal government response has often fallen short. We thank Senator Padilla and Rep. Barragan for this legislation to better ensure the Department of Justice effectively enforce our environmental laws and provide justice to communities long overburdened by toxic exposure to pollution.”

“For too long, polluters have gotten a pass on their actions because of inadequate enforcement of environmental protection laws, and our communities have paid the price. We at Breathe SoCal are in full support of the Empowering & Enforcing Environmental Justice Act because this law will make sure environmental justice is a priority when enforcing environmental protection laws. This will make disadvantaged communities’ air and water cleaner and will improve the long-term health of their residents.” said Marc Carrel, President and CEO, Breathe Southern California.

“Americans share a vision of healthy, thriving, diverse communities where we can support our families and raise children without exposure to toxic pollution. To get there, we need enforcement of environmental protections in frontline communities. By elevating the importance of environmental justice and ensuring that federal agencies are protecting our communities from polluters and racial injustice, this bill takes a key step toward that more healthy and just future.” said Sara Zimmerman, Executive Director, Climate Equity Policy Center.

“For too long, communities of color and low-income communities have borne the brunt of pollution caused by unaccountable polluters. Azul supports The Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act of 2022, which will create tools necessary to pursue legal actions that enforce environmental justice and civil rights. Communities of color and low-income communities along the coast, and everywhere else, have been left behind by legal inaction while polluters get away with harming people. Especially as Congress considers inadequate permitting legislation that will inevitably hurt frontline communities most, the need for The Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act of 2022 is more important now than ever,” said Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, Azul’s Founder and Executive Director.

“It’s about time that cries for environmental justice in underserved communities across the nation are heard.  I’m proud to learn that Senator Alex Padilla and Congresswoman Nanette Barragan have taken such cries seriously enough that they’ve become champions for the cause.  All together, little communities working with their representatives can bring about lasting change that actually saves lives and heals our planet!” said Tim Watkins, President and CEO, Watts Labor Community Action Committee.

“The Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act comes at a critical moment. As we face a mounting climate crisis, Congress must commit to creating strong legislation that will ensure impactful investments are made in environmental justice communities, and empower DOJ and other federal agencies to effectively advocate for the public and fight against pollution. Governments at all levels must be made accountable to protect the public from environmental degradation and support implementation of Justice40 and other similar initiatives. We applaud Rep. Barragan and Senator Padilla for leading this crucial effort.”said Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, Sustainability Communities Program, GreenLatinos.

“Everyone, regardless of their race or zip code, has a right to a healthy and safe environment. However, communities most harmed by pollution have been denied full and equitable access to the government’s protection for too long. The Enforcing and Empowering Environmental Justice Act seeks to right that wrong and helps deliver on the Biden administration’s promise to confront environmental injustice and inequity. 

EDF applauds Rep. Barragán and Sen. Padilla for their leadership on this legislation. Just days after the Environmental Protection Agency announced their new national Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, this bill moves the country closer toward a whole-of-government approach to address environmental injustice.” said Dr. Margot Brown, Vice President, Justice and Equity, Environmental Defense Fund.

“As we grapple with the climate crisis and its effects around the world, we cannot lose sight of what’s happening in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. For decades, many communities – primarily Black, Brown and low-income communities, have lived alongside pollution. Coupled with other challenges, such as food insecurity, lack of gainful employment opportunities and a poor access to healthcare, residents of these communities live shorter lives and have a worse quality of life. Many of the “disadvantaged communities” of today were formerly redlined communities nearly a century ago. Legislation like the Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act will help provide the tools needed to overcome the tragic legacy of environmental injustice.” said Christopher Chavez, Deputy Policy Director, Coalition for Clean Air.

“Puente Latino Association has done most of its work in neighborhoods suffering from the highest pollution and pollution related health afflictions in California. We believe in building bridges to opportunity and breaking down the walls of systemic inequities. Puente supports the “Empowering and Enforcing Environmental Justice Act” and knows it is another step in the right direction to correct the social, economic, and environmental burdens of marginalized communities across our nation.” said Hilda Gaytan, President, Puente Latino Association.

“All people have the right to a healthy environment, including clean air, water, and soil; nearby, accessible nature; resilience to natural disasters; and a stable climate. Yet many Black, Indigenous, Latino and other communities of color face environmental racism from disproportionate exposure to toxins and pollution and a lack of access to nature. These communities often face multiple environmental injustices simultaneously, the impacts of which are compounded by high rates of poverty, unemployment, and disenfranchisement. It is important for the federal government to create this new office to remedy these long-standing injustices and ensure that all communities have equal access to a healthy environment.” said Shanna Edberg, Director of Conservation, Hispanic Access Foundation.

“Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income communities have historically been disproportionately affected by air pollution and climate change because of where we live, work, and play. Since taking office, President Biden has consistently emphasized the importance of addressing these disparities. We commend the President’s centering of environmental justice, and applaud Rep. Barragan and Sen. Padilla for authoring the Environmental Justice Empowerment and Enforcement Act, which builds on this Administration’s commitment to addressing historic inequities.” said Carolina Peña-Alarcón, Program Manager, EcoMadres.

Climate change is harming our communities right now, and its impacts are being felt first and worst in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The Enforcing and Empowering Environmental Justice Act seeks to ensure these overburdened communities have access to the justice they deserve. Everyone has a right to clean air and a healthy environment, and we welcome this effort to bring meaningful change to the communities that need it most.” said Melody Reis, Senior Legislative Manager, Moms Clean Air Force.


Nanette Diaz Barragán is proud to represent California’s 44th Congressional District, which includes the communities of Carson, Compton, Florence-Firestone, Lynwood, North Long Beach, Rancho Dominguez, San Pedro, South Gate, Walnut Park, Watts, Willowbrook and Wilmington. She serves as chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border Security, and on the House Energy and Commerce Health, Energy, and Environment & Climate Change Subcommittees.