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Trump Hotel Chicago Photo: Tony the Tiger, Wiki CC
The Justice Department’s Environmental lawyers last week reversed numerous Trump administration policies, including one that allows companies to do environmental restoration and remediation projects as part of their fines and penalties. The Department also reversed a Trump policy that had prevented the department from pursuing civil enforcement and penalties in cases where states had already prosecuted violations of state environmental laws.
In all, DOJ overturned nine Trump administration policies that had loosened environmental law enforcement because those policies were “inconsistent with longstanding Division policy and practice” and “may impede the full exercise of enforcement discretion in the Division’s cases.”
At the same time, a state court in Illinois held the Trump International Hotel in Chicago had violated state environmental laws because it was using river water without a valid permit.
Why This Matters: Our environmental laws are only effective if there is a credible threat of enforcement to ensure compliance, and when it is clear that no one — even a former-President — is above the law. The policy reversals came from career lawyers at the DOJ and were not politically motivated. Indeed, Biden Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland has not yet been confirmed — these moves are a return to long-established “norms.”
Supplemental Projects Make For Effective Enforcement
The DOJ for decades – through Republican and Democratic administrations — had effectively used “supplemental environmental projects” or SEPs — because they were a way of rectifying the harms caused by environmental violations. Both environmental prosecutors and companies who violated the law liked to engage in actions like cleaning up streams or toxic chemicals from dumping sites as a way of making restitution with impacted communities. The DOJ allowed companies to offset fines with up to eighty percent of what a company spent on such projects.
Trump Hotel Violations
The Trump Hotel case had been pending in Chicago since 2018 when the company’s permit lapsed but the hotel continued to suck in more than 19 million gallons of Chicago River water per day for cooling and then returned the water at a higher temperature, The Washington Post reported. The judge has not set the penalty in the case yet, but the city was seeking $50,000 for the violations plus $10,000 every day starting at the onset of the violation until the issue is fixed. Former President Trump decried the action through his lawyers, who alleged the enforcement case was politically motivated.
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