COLUMBUS, Ohio—The ideal of Executive Order 12898 seems noble enough: that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences that can result from commercial or governmental policies.
Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, EO 12898 was intended to address environmental injustice by developing a strategy to combat it.
"Environmental justice began as a social movement in the 1960s, in Black communities dealing with pollution," said Reed Sirak, an attorney with Cleveland-based Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan and Aronoff L.L.P. "It continues to be a key movement for the Biden administration in directing its environmental policy."
"My concern is that we've seen an increase in the off-site investigations of an otherwise compliant business," Sirak told an audience of about 150 at the Marriott Downtown Columbus. "When the EPA gets involved, they typically find something.
"And sometimes that means a headline can be created (for a particular business) that can be worse than the penalties themselves."
In May 2022, the Biden administration established a separate Environmental Justice Office within the U.S. EPA's Environment and Natural Resources Division, a regulatory division that Sirak says is ushering in "an entirely new era of enforcement at the EPA."
"The strategy provides a roadmap for using the Justice Department's civil and criminal enforcement authorities and tools to achieve President Biden's call," according to the OEJ's website. "The department seeks to advance environmental justice in underserved communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened, including low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal and indigenous communities."