Federal prosecutors have created a new environmental justice team to focus on prosecuting crimes related to child lead exposure, air pollution and the protection of waters and wetlands across Long Island and New York City, officials said Thursday.
Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, the acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, announced on Thursday the creation of the team, which is composed of seven assistant U.S. Attorneys from the Civil Division.
"The Environmental Justice Team is a critical part of the Office’s long-standing commitment to fighting pollution and climate change," Kasulis said in a statement. "This Office will continue to vigorously enforce federal environmental laws and hold polluters accountable."
The move comes in response to a mandate from President Joe Biden for federal agencies to concentrate on environmental justice. In January, Biden signed an executive order establishing a White House interagency council on the issue, stressing the need to help disadvantaged communities.
"For too long, the lived experience of many communities whose residents are predominantly of color, Indigenous, or low-income is that they suffer from disproportionately high pollution levels that result in adverse health and environmental impacts," said Environmental Protection Agency Acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan.
"The creation of this Environmental Justice Team is a positive step forward to strengthen the enforcement of our bedrock environmental laws and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to ensure violations in environmental justice communities are promptly identified and corrected, and that appropriate penalties are imposed as a deterrent against future violations," Mugdan said.
"We are hopeful this may provide much needed relief and action to communities suffering from environmental exposures," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "The need for communities to be protected from pollution and health impacts is prevalent across Long Island and federal leadership has been nonexistent. The efforts by an Environmental Justice Team will be a welcome change for communities that are impacted."
She added: "This could provide a life jacket to communities that are overwhelmed."
In state prosecutions, Long Island has been an epicenter of environmental crime — including an illegal dumping scheme that closed Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood for more than three years after officials in 2014 discovered that more than 40,000 tons of contaminants were illegally dumped there.
Five men, including two former town parks employees, were convicted in connection with the dumping.
The Suffolk County District Attorney's office also conducted "Operation Pay Dirt," a joint investigation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation into illegal dumping on Long Island. It led to the indictment of 30 individuals and nine corporations for disposing of contaminated waste at 24 sites on the Island.
Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini subsequently convened a special grand jury to study the issue, which reported there were no laws specifically targeting the illegal acceptance, disposal or possession of construction and demolition material, hazardous substances and acutely hazardous substances.
In 2020, state lawmakers made it a felony to illegally dump construction debris or participate in a dumping scheme.
The Eastern District includes Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.