Despite the existing tension between trade pacts and global environmental rule of law, environmental side agreements (ESAs) of bilateral and multilateral trade pacts have created a unique mechanism for environmental enforcement: citizen submissions. These submissions provide a mechanism for ordinary citizens to formally and publicly bring attention to potential environmental harms in their communities, including the non-enforcement of environmental laws.
Let me begin this blog by stating that I support the Joe Biden Administration’s effort to address environmental injustices in this nation. I just wish that it had taken a legislative-focused path to help bring about profound changes in the lives of tens of millions of Black and Brown and poor people.
On August 5, 2015, EPA personnel assigned to mitigate pollutants from the foreclosed Gold King Mine in Colorado caused the discharge of toxic wastewater into the Animas River watershed, releasing lead, arsenic, and other metals and toxic elements. Even though Colorado Governor Hickenlooper eventually declared the area a disaster zone, the delayed response and devastating environmental impacts from the Gold King Mine wastewater spill revealed an urgent need to address the nearly 500,000 Abandoned Mine Lands throughout the United States. According to the EPA, the total cost to clean up AMLs ranges from $50-70 billion. Although the burden of mitigating toxic pollutants from AMLs may appear to rest solely upon the federal government, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) mandates that the party responsible for AML hazardous contamination must assume financial responsibility.
An incoming administration stocked with veterans of prior government service is uniquely suited to appreciate the central role of administrative law in American governance. But the day-one actions of the Biden Administration put an exclamation point on this observation.
President Donald Trump’s policies appear to be at odds with the environmental justice (EJ) movement, but little work has been done to test their true impact. Trump proposed or completed rollbacks of nearly 100 environmental regulations, repeatedly rejected calls for action on climate change, and continuously sought to cut funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including for environmental justice. These regressive policies seem likely to harm poor and minority communities most, especially following what many saw as promising progress under President Barack Obama. But how are these policy changes actually impacting the cause of EJ? How can we assess actual progress toward EJ’s multifaceted goals?
Environmental agencies are increasingly transforming their approach to citizen science, from viewing it as a source of data primarily for education and awareness to a potential source of concrete value for their programs. Although this relationship has existed for some time, the emergence of new technologies, an increasingly aware public, and the rise of unexpected pollution events has reinvigorated the way agencies and the public work together.
As we are moving from an aggressively deregulatory period to one in which regulation is more likely to be seen as important in advancing environmental policy, let’s take a quick look at what to anticipate from the three branches of the federal government.
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) administration is in a serious tangle, given new Trump Administration regulations, the long-standing procedures administered by scores of federal agencies, and inconsistent environmental review obligations depending on various dates. This knot, like the legendary knot of King Gordias, is not easily unraveled. But it is not impossible.
In observing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 50th anniversary, I have a few early-days reflections. I had my first brush with EPA while in law school, when I drafted South Carolina’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Interim Status and Part B regulations. “Drafting” is somewhat generous, as my work was primarily cutting and pasting the EPA rules that were set up to apply in the absence of state program authorization and conforming them, and their corresponding preambles, to the South Carolina context. But it was a meaningful baptism into the complexity of EPA’s work within the labyrinth that is the Federal Register. In my last year of law school, I was accepted under the honors program at the U.S. Department of Justice, and was soon off to work as a trial attorney in their Environmental Enforcement Section. My primary client? EPA.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Law Institute hosted a webinar on cultural fire management—just prior to yet another devastating fire season across the West Coast of the United States. The discussion highlighted the millennia of Indigenous peoples’ sustainable forest management practices, drawing a sharp contrast with the consequences of over a century of federal fire-suppression policy, now exacerbated by climate change. That discussion now prompts a deeper conversation about options available to Indigenous tribes for regaining their stewardship role over forest resources on their traditional lands.