The Justice Department division that is often referred to as the largest U.S. environmental law firm is building a nationwide team to help its most underserved clients.
Since last year, DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) has been on a mission to help President Joe Biden carry out his goal of helping people of color and low-income communities fight pollution and the impacts of climate change. As part of that effort, all 94 of DOJ’s local U.S. attorneys’ offices are now equipped with at least one civil or criminal lawyer who serves as an environmental justice coordinator.
Their assignment: Translate DOJ’s federal environmental justice strategy into action that is appropriate for their states, cities and neighborhoods.
“I like to call them a small army, spread across the country,” said Cynthia Ferguson, director of DOJ’s Office of Environmental Justice, which is housed within ENRD.
Ferguson, whose office was created last year as a result of Biden’s 2021 climate executive order, highlighted DOJ’s response to the drinking water crisis in Jackson, Miss., last summer as a top achievement in the department’s mission to crack down on contamination in vulnerable areas.
The department’s work in Jackson is among the efforts featured in ENRD’s first annual report on its comprehensive environmental justice strategy. Other accomplishments include a rare EPA lawsuit against petrochemical manufacturer Denka Performance Elastomer for air pollution in Louisiana.
DOJ’s environmental justice coordinators played a key role in that work. In Jackson, for example, the environmental justice team at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi hosted outreach events to connect members of the community with government lawyers who had first-hand knowledge of their plight.
Together, they discussed concerns and potential solutions following the treatment plant failure that left more than 150,000 Jackson residents without drinking water for several days — after the majority-Black city had been under a boil-water advisory for a month.
The federal government responded by tapping a water executive to oversee repairs to Jackson’s water system and sued the city for drinking water violations.
“They’ve set up a system so the communities realize that, yes, your local DOJ does environmental work, and you can raise environmental justice issues with them,” said Ferguson.
Sometimes, the lessons DOJ has learned are as simple as when not to get in touch.
“Don’t hold community engagement meetings on Bible study night,” said Kate Konschnik, principal deputy assistant attorney general within ENRD.
Meet three of the career DOJ attorneys who are carrying out the department’s environmental justice goals:
Mitzi Dease Paige, Mississippi
When floodwaters from Mississippi’s Pearl River overwhelmed Jackson’s already-fragile drinking water system in summer 2022, Mitzi Dease Paige was more than ready to help the city’s residents find a solution to the crisis.
She was living through it, too.
“I do live in the city of Jackson, proper,” said Paige, assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi’s Civil Division. “I was affected by the numerous boil-water notices and the system failures, and having to boil the water before we could brush our teeth or cook.”
Paige, whose parents moved to Jackson when she was 1, has worked in the U.S. attorney’s office for nearly her entire career. The Spelman College and Tulane Law School graduate is now part of a small team in her district that has been tasked with addressing environmental justice concerns. Soon after she received that directive, the Jackson water crisis struck.
Her office immediately organized several public outreach events to ensure that the government’s answer to the crisis was meeting the needs of the community.
“We heard from restaurants that were struggling during that time, from hospitals, from different types of health care clinics, like dialysis clinics,” Paige said. “I remember walking away from that one thinking, ‘I had no idea how much water a dialysis clinic had to use on a daily basis.’”
She continued: “We always say that water is life and all of that, but [the outreach effort revealed] how many different entities were touched that needed water — and how difficult the situation was for those entities to survive.”
Before establishing an environmental justice coordinator position in the district, Paige said, the U.S. attorney’s office had had limited contact with the public.
“I do think that personal touch helped,” she said.
Matthew Silverman, New York
In the Eastern District of New York — which covers three of New York City’s five boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — the U.S. attorney’s office had already been tackling pollution in underserved communities for decades before Biden arrived in the White House.
But the president put new emphasis on that mission, said Matthew Silverman, assistant U.S. attorney and environmental justice coordinator for the office. By summer 2021, the district had launched an environmental justice team and placed Silverman, who had been the environmental chief for the office, in his new role.
“That was really to try to focus resources on environmental justice, to have prosecutors who were spending more of their time on environmental justice cases and so that we were ready to step up on any issue,” he said.
Silverman, a Brooklyn native, said his team has been developing specialized expertise in different categories of pollution, such as lead paint, water and air.
Several months after establishing its environmental justice team, the office reached an agreement with the New York City Department of Education to swap out boilers in public schools and pay a $1 million penalty for potentially harmful emissions from those systems.
“Many of those schools were in areas with environmental justice concerns,” said Silverman, a graduate of the State University of New York at Oswego and Indiana University School of Law.
He added that his office’s work in those schools also benefits the surrounding area.
“And air pollution is not a static thing,” he said. “It can travel to other communities as well.”
John Osborn, Maine
After spending two decades in the Pine Tree State, John Osborn still jokes that it will take generations before other Mainers see him as an official member of the community.
Osborn, who grew up in New York and Virginia, attended college at the University of Vermont and William & Mary Law School before landing a job at a private law firm in Maine and transitioning to the public sector in 2011.
“I’ve been here for 20 years,” he said. “So my grandchildren will be considered local.”
As assistant U.S. attorney and environmental justice coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine, Osborn’s priority is his community — especially the state’s immigrant populations in places like Portland.
“Maine is an old state,” he said, adding that there’s a “huge stock” of housing that was built prior to 1978, the year lead-based paints were banned in residential housing.
Many of Maine’s older houses, including the large Victorian-style homes in the state’s metropolitan areas, have been converted into rental housing, with three or four apartments crammed inside. Some of those units are subsidized to help low-income residents afford the rent, but those occupants may face elevated risk for lead paint exposure, which can cause neurological damage and even death, said Osborn.
“With our immigrant community, they can be vulnerable with linguistic isolation; they could be vulnerable because of poverty rates; they could be vulnerable because of educational attainment,” Osborn said.
He added that in Maine, potentially contaminated homes are being rented “to people who often aren’t in a position to do a good job of understanding or advocating for their rights.”
Currently, Osborn’s office is setting up relationships with community members and working to understand where the worst problems are and which landlords are violating safety rules.
Osborn has also been tasked with connecting the U.S. network of environmental justice coordinators to discuss best practices and meet for periodic training.
One of the program’s biggest challenges, he said, is defining the exact scope of their work. Deciding where to focus their efforts can depend on factors like the race and income level of a community’s residents — but the process is more art than science, Osborn said.
“An environmental justice evaluation is complicated and nuanced,” he said, “and there is no individual equation that you can use and pop in some demographics and say, boom, there’s an environmental justice community.”