The Justice Department will resume the practice of seeking money from polluting companies for projects in poor or minority communities, reversing a Trump policy. Working with the Environmental Protection Agency, DOJ revived "Supplemental Environmental Projects" that require companies accused of breaking pollution laws to pay for water wells, parks, or other environmental or community improvements, the Wall Street Journal reports. The deals can be negotiated by the government or as side deals by environmental groups, who sometimes join the government in civil suits and want remedies beyond what the government demanded. So-called SEPs were common under previous Democratic administrations. The Trump administration halted the practice, saying it subverted Congress’s spending authority by funding projects that lawmakers wouldn’t, and reduced penalties that should be paid directly to the federal government.
Renewal of the settlements is likely to be met with skepticism from conservatives, who say the deals have funded projects that did little to remediate the original environmental harm. At a Thursday news conference, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the policy change was part of a broader effort to give priority to cases against polluters in poor and minority communities. “These projects bring environmental and public-health benefits to the communities most directly affected by the underlying violations,” he said. Garland said such projects would be subject to new restrictions on payments to environmental groups or other third parties. The curbs aim to ensure that money ultimately goes to projects with strong connections to the violations. The new policy is several moves in what DOJ a new comprehensive environmental justice-enforcement strategy. The Justice Department is creating a new Office of Environmental Justice to give priority to cases that might reduce environmental harm in minority communities.