If you had a chance to watch the fifth Congressional hearing to investigate January 6thc attacks on our capital, you’ll likely hear one name mentioned over and over again: Jeffrey Clark.
As I watched the auditions, the name rang a bell. This was the same Jeffrey Clark who oversees environmental protection during the Trump administration, the area of oversight (lack of) that has UCS so alarmed.
Testimony and evidence continued to build a case that Jeffrey Clark, a mid-level political appointee at the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Trump administration, was close to taking over the top job at the DOJ. He seemed ready to follow President Trump’s wishes to cast doubt on the 2020 election in an attempt to subvert the very core of our democracy. This move would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
Given these serious allegations, it’s worth looking more into Jeffrey Clark’s background at the DOJ prior to this point.
The DOJ environmental wing is designed to go after criminal polluters
Prior to his resignation on January 14, 2021, Clark was head of two divisions within the DOJ, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Civil Division. Clark’s role in the Civil Division was in an acting capacity and only for a few months, so Clark’s main influence at the agency was running the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
From November 2018 to January 2021, Jeffrey Clarke had great power over our country’s environmental protection. The division has about 550 lawyers who investigate issues such as pollution, public lands, wildlife and tribal sovereignty. This DOJ division targets industries that produce illegally high levels of air pollution, industries that harm or trade in endangered animals, people who dump raw sewage into rivers, oil companies that drill without proper safety equipment, and city governments that fail to deliver air. steps in to prosecute crimes. clean drinking water among other crimes.
The laws this office enforces are some of the nation’s most important environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Environmental Protection, Compensation, and Liability Act (also called). Superfund Act). The health and safety, and even the lives, of communities and wildlife across the country depend on the enforcement actions of this DOJ division.
In other words, the same person accused of trying to subvert democracy was previously responsible for many of the federal environmental protection measures.
The Environment and Natural Resources Division is also home to DOJ’s Office of Environmental Justice. Strong environmentalism has always been one of the challenges of the environmental justice movement, as powerful groups may be emboldened to undermine the health and safety of marginalized communities over wealthier or whiter communities. Therefore, Clark’s actions had a particularly large impact on underserved communities facing environmental justice concerns.
Rewind: Remember what happened under President Trump
The previous administration was one of the most anti-environmental administrations in recent years. At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have recorded 77 attacks on science directly related to environmental issues during the Trump administration, the vast majority (53) of which occurred during Clark’s tenure as Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Several of those cases involved lawyers directly from Clark’s department defending some of the Trump administration’s most egregious anti-science and anti-environmental actions, including the administration’s efforts to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). . While waiting for Congress to vote on his nomination, Clark directly argued on behalf of the Trump administration in a high-profile case at the U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn a rule drafted by the Obama administration that would have strengthened enforcement measures. mining companies will pay to clean up the incredibly toxic pollution they cause in nearby communities.
In a previous report, we examined environmental protection at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Criminal Investigation Division under the previous administration. For environmental criminal cases, this division of the EPA works directly with the DOJ’s Division of Environment and Natural Resources, known as the Environmental Crimes Unit. EPA criminal investigators investigate these cases and DOJ lawyers prosecute these cases.
Our 2019 analysis showed a large decrease in criminal prosecutions for environmental crimes by EPA and DOJ personnel under the Trump administration compared to the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Data from the Trump administration’s third fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, 2019) is close to Clark’s first year on the job, when he was sworn in on Nov. 1, 2018. What we can see is that Clark has failed to properly enforce environmental laws, as did his predecessor, Jeffrey H. Wood, who served as acting head of the division from 2017 to 2018.
In particular, Clark and Wood compromised the implementation of two landmark environmental laws, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. These two laws are fundamental to protecting our air and water from pollution, and therefore failure to enforce these laws can directly threaten the health and safety of communities and the environment.
Geoffrey Clarke led a team that limited environmental protection
At times, Clark was more willing than his predecessor to undermine the department’s ability to enforce environmental laws. In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then head of the DOJ, along with Wood, began to significantly limit a longstanding and important enforcement tool used by communities affected by criminal levels of pollution from nearby facilities.
This enforcement action, known as supplemental environmental projects, is one of the only enforcement actions available to affected community members during the EPA settlement process that can help mitigate the harm caused by a polluter. It requires polluters to immediately remedy the harm they cause to local communities when they violate environmental law. In March 2020, Clark departed from Wood and tried to stop the use of additional environmental projects in even more circumstances, leaving only one limited avenue for use in cases involving the reduction of diesel emissions.
This means that Clark blocked an important way in which, except in one narrow case, communities could hold polluters directly accountable for their actions and pressure them to provide funding that could mitigate that damage. In the past, additional environmental projects have been used to create funds to remove lead paint from public housing, install and operate air filtration systems in affected neighborhoods, and reduce pesticide runoff from agricultural land, among other things.
These actions are contrary to decades of EPA policy and DOJ practice. But even in this case, if Clark goes a bit further than his predecessor, we can see Clark moving very closely with other Trump administration officials at the DOJ, including Jeff Sessions.
You don’t have to be famous to do great damage
During her tenure as Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Clark was responsible for enforcing the laws that underpin our public health and environmental protection, and she failed in her role. By leading a disruptive enforcement team, he has had a significant negative impact on the environment and the health and safety of communities across the country, particularly underserved communities.
Perhaps many of us have forgotten the day-by-day erosion of science and democracy carried out by the previous administration. But the example of Jeffrey Clark, a shady political appointee, serves as a reminder that there are people willing and able to subvert our public institutions, subvert democracy, and jeopardize our health and safety for their own political gain. A key way to prevent the next Jeffrey Clark is for us to vote for leaders in local, state, and federal governments who advocate for fair, democratic, and science-based decision-making.
Originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.
By Anita Desikan
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