Acting Associate Attorney General Matthew Colangelo Delivers Remarks at Listening Session on Environmental Crime Victims | OPA

Remarks as Delivered

Good Afternoon.

Kris, thank you for the kind introduction. Thank you all for joining us this afternoon for this opportunity to exchange ideas about how to better serve victims of environmental crime. We are honored to be joined by so many knowledgeable and dedicated professionals working on behalf of crime victims and the environment, federal and state law enforcement, academic experts, and representatives of organizations.

On behalf of Attorney General Merrick Garland, let me say that the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency are excited to co-host this program together. The only thing better would be to be with you in person. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that next year.

We are honored to have my esteemed colleague Administrator Regan here with us today. It is a privilege to work with the Administrator to protect the public health and environment of our nation, including the most vulnerable communities that often suffer most from the effects of pollution and climate change. Michael is a strong leader on these issues.

It is a happy coincidence and quite fitting that this year, National Crime Victims’ Rights Week falls on the same week we celebrate Earth Day. We’ve been observing National Crime Victims’ Rights week for 40 years and Earth Day for over 50. Both evoke values at the core of the Justice Department’s mission: ensuring adherence to the rule of law, enforcing the nation’s laws to protect public health and the environment, and protecting the most vulnerable among us, including those in communities that bear a disproportionate share of environmental burdens.

Victims of environmental crimes, however, have received insufficient support for too long, and today our agencies are jointly taking a big step forward to change that.

The Department of Justice and EPA are pleased to formally announce the creation of the nation’s first-of-its-kind Environmental Crime Victim Assistance Program.  This program was created after several years of outreach and listening to YOU about the on-the-ground needs and barriers to upholding rights and accessing services. We listened and learned from victims, from victims’ rights professionals, and from those working on environmental crimes investigations and prosecutions.   

The program will help ensure that victims of federal environmental crimes are properly identified, that their rights are protected, and that they receive services from the opening of an investigation through the prosecution of the case. Both agencies will have the infrastructure to ensure we meet our obligations to victims through the creation of victim-witness coordinator positions, specialized training and job aides, and outreach to victims and victims’ rights professionals. You will hear more about the specifics of this Program and its objectives today.

Victims of environmental crime have long been an underserved and often overlooked type of victim in our criminal justice system. Some are casualties of large-scale, high-profile incidents like the Deepwater Horizon disaster or the Volkswagen emissions scandal. But the majority are victims of crimes that receive much less public attention:

  • The low-wage worker given no or inadequate protective gear and exposed to asbestos fibers from a renovation or demolition project;
  • The farmworker exposed to an illegal application of a pesticide;
  • The family whose exterminator illegally applies pesticides and causes permanent brain injury to children in their home; and
  • The community located near a cluster of industrial facilities, where one polluter knowingly violates the law by exposing that community to carcinogens while the other facilities follow the law, to name but a few examples.

We serve and seek justice for all of these victims.

This Administration understands the importance of crime victims’ rights.  President Biden has said that as a society we must address the “ripples of trauma” associated with criminal offenses and support individuals and communities that have been affected by criminal offenses. He has specifically expressed his support for the full and effective implementation of the Victims of Crime Act and associated programs, which helps victims of criminal offenses to address the harm flowing from those offenses.  

President Biden and the Attorney General understand that the brunt of the harm caused by pollution and climate change is often borne by communities of color and low-income communities. Within his very first week on the job, President Biden directed federal agencies to develop programs and policies to “address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related, and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities.”

The Environmental Crime Victim Assistance Program will help achieve environmental justice by ensuring crime victims in communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harm are able to equally participate in the criminal justice system.  

The theme of this year’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is “Support Victims. Build Trust. Engage Communities.” Through today’s program, you will hear how this first-of-its-kind program supports environmental crime victims by ensuring they are provided the services required under the Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act and accorded their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. You will hear how the EPA and DOJ build trust together with victims’ rights professionals by engaging in outreach to develop partnerships to provide victim assistance. You will learn how we engage communities with environmental justice concerns to ensure the most vulnerable not only receive services but have their voices heard from the opening of an investigation through final adjudication. 

While there is now a national federal program to assist environmental crime victims, it is only part of the solution. The primary goal of this event is to enhance the relationships with state, local, and non-profit victim service professionals that provide local assistance and compensation to these underserved victims.  Environmental crimes can happen anywhere, and victims of these crimes can be in anyone’s community.  We each have a role in serving these victims.

This afternoon you will hear presentations from members of the EPA and DOJ Victim Assistance Team. These DOJ and EPA staff – criminal attorneys, prosecutors, special agents, and professional staff  – are responsible for the development of this program. They are our public face and in-house subject matter experts. I want to thank them for their work in setting up the Environmental Crime Victims’ Program, and for organizing today’s event. I also want to recognize the department’s Office for Victims of Crime, which has provided funding critical to the development and implementation of the program. 

Again, thank you for taking time out of your schedules to learn about our program. We look forward to working with you to make this program a success.

Thank you.

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