DA Candidate Eliza Orlins’ Newly-Announced Environmental Justice Unit Will Hold Polluters and Corporations Accountable

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DA Candidate Eliza Orlins’ Newly-Announced Environmental Justice Unit Will Hold Polluters and Corporations Accountable

NEW YORK:____ Eliza Orlins, public defender and candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, released a detailed policy outlining the creation of a robust and revolutionary Environmental Justice Unit to address a comprehensive array of environmental crimes — especially those committed by corporations — that predominantly impact low-income, Black, and Brown communities across Manhattan.

This is the latest in a series of policies Orlins has announced that address, in detail, how she will reform the District Attorney’s office once elected.

“As DA, my responsibility will be to protect the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers and ensure public safety — not just in the traditional sense of the term, but in ways that also account for the slow violence of environmental crimes. As I know from my years as a public defender, public safety isn’t possible when we ignore the environmental hazards, from contaminated water to lead paint and toxic mold, that are harming people — especially low-income communities and Black and Brown people — across our city,” said Eliza Orlins, candidate for Manhattan DA. “In New York, victims seeking justice for these violations have traditionally received little to no protection from a District Attorney’s office more interested in protecting their powerful friends than the people who live in our buildings and drink our water. That will change when I am in charge. Our city needs a reimagining of local environmental law enforcement attuned to the racial, economic, and social disparities that are the central focus of the environmental justice movement, and that’s exactly what I’ll do as DA.”

Orlins’ policy, outlined below in full and on Orlins’ website, pledges that when she takes office, she, as the District Attorney, would:

  1. Create an Environmental Justice Unit to truly transform New Yorkers’ relationship with the city they inhabit and address a wide range of environmental crimes that threaten the health and safety of all, but particularly Black, Brown, and low-income New Yorkers.

  2. Address a range of environmental problems in housing, including toxic mold and lead paint.

  3. Increase funding for environmental inspections to ensure that we are proactively seeking out and addressing problems.

  4. Have her Environmental Justice Unit partner with economic crimes attorneys to search for evidence of environmental risk disclosure violations in finance that rise to the level of fraud, and prosecute those cases as DA.

  5. Instruct her Environmental Justice Unit to partner with her previously-announced Worker Protection Unit to investigate and bring charges in cases where workers are improperly exposed to environmental hazards.

Environmental Justice Unit 

Public safety is not possible when we narrowly define safety to exclude our built environment. When people drink contaminated water or are exposed to air quality hazards like lead paint and toxic mold, they are victims not only of state or federal criminal offenses, but also of violations of local laws, codes, and ordinances designed to protect us all. Yet in New York, victims seeking justice for these violations receive little to no protection from the District Attorney’s office. Even when a resident has the means to engage independent legal representation to file a civil lawsuit, criminal prosecution is extremely rare, regardless of how clear and unambiguous the evidence is.

As District Attorney, I will address these problems by creating an Environmental Justice Unit, tasked with holding corporations and individuals accountable when they break environmental laws and risk the health and safety of New Yorkers. COVID-19 has demonstrated how important it is to find a new definition of public safety that accounts for the slow violence of environmental crimes. Decades of exposure to environmental threats have left Black, Brown, and low-income communities far more vulnerable to the devastating impacts of the virus, contributing to the enormous health disparities we have seen in the past year.

When corporations flout environmental regulations, they place an unacceptable burden on all communities, and particularly on Black, Brown, and low-income people. This situation perpetuates a pattern that does the greatest harm to those who bear the least responsibility for the production of environmental hazards. The current District Attorney has allowed our local laws to be violated with impunity. New York needs a reimagining of local environmental law enforcement attuned to the racial, economic, and social disparities that are the central focus of the environmental justice movement. This is not simply an effort to add isolated environmental crimes to a diversified docket of cases we prosecute, but an effort to transform the relationship New Yorkers have with our city. By eliminating the root causes of environmental hazards that produce such intense disparities, we will lay the foundation we need to effectively fight and adapt to climate change at the local level.

Creating an Environmental Justice Unit 

In addition to the over-prosecution of low-level offenses, prosecutors in the current DA’s office have engaged in a systemic under-prosecution of repeated environmental crimes that result in a much larger cumulative effect on public safety. This will end when I take office. The greatest health disparities in our city exist along racial and socioeconomic lines. It is easy to determine which building owners in these areas have the largest numbers of local code violations, and there is widespread evidence of the use of tactics like the “Kushner Loophole,”  which weaponize construction and environmental hazards to evict rent-stabilized tenants. There is no excuse for failing to act on this evidence: our criminal legal system offers one of the best available tools to protect New Yorkers from environmental threats.

City agencies frequently already possess the evidence required to prosecute these crimes. The cumulative impact of under-prosecution of environmental crimes has made these activities profitable for the offenders, enabling a much larger pattern of abuse from our worst offenders that places an outsized burden on the city, and its most vulnerable residents.

My Environmental Justice Unit will be staffed with a team of attorneys focused only on environmental justice issues. The Unit will also include community liaisons, who will be responsible for communicating with local community members and leaders to learn about problems that warrant investigation. Dedicated investigators will look into reported environmental problems that are brought to our attention, and seek out problems through conversations with community members. These investigators will work alongside attorneys to determine which cases cross the threshold for criminal liability. In addition to proactively searching for cases, my office will operate a public hotline and encourage New Yorkers to report problems they witness in Manhattan. Finally, we will closely partner with local environmental activists and advocates to ensure that this work is always approached in a way that promotes equity and justice.

The Unit will receive support from the Chief Policy Scientist and their staff to assess patterns and trends in environmental safety, including rates of mold and lead paint detection and prosecution, air pollution violations, and more. Furthermore, Unit staff will partner with our data analysis team to release a yearly report about environmental crimes and prosecutions, so that New Yorkers are fully informed about the actions that my office takes to address these crucial problems.

These goals can only be achieved with strong communication and coordination across jurisdictional lines. In addition to prosecuting chronic environmental offenders, the Environmental Justice Unit will establish formal lines of communication with all city agencies and our counterparts in other boroughs and cities. To this end, we will establish a communications channel so that stakeholders outside city limits can report concerns about environmental hazards in their communities that originated in ours.

Guiding principles of the Environmental Justice Unit

The goal of this unit is to truly transform the way that New Yorkers interact with the built environment — particularly low-income New Yorkers and people of color, who are disproportionately impacted by pollution and environmental toxins despite bearing the least responsibility for creating these environmental problems. This means taking a proactive approach to addressing environmental harms: seeking out cases, and addressing problems holistically. Environmental justice is a complex, multifaceted issue, and we will constantly communicate with community partners to ensure that we are addressing these problems in full.

We also approach this work within the broader context of climate change, and with a full understanding of the important role that local jurisdictions must play in mitigating its impacts and pushing for solutions to the climate crisis. Climate change has already begun to disproportionately impact the same communities that have been targeted by the criminal legal system. The Environmental Justice Unit will collaborate with local and national environmental groups to ensure that it fully lives up to its name. The following sections address some, but not all, of the specific issues that the Unit will address with the aim of demonstrating how the power of the prosecutor’s office can be used as a tool to fight for environmental justice.

Addressing environmental hazards in housing, including toxic mold 

My office will utilize all available data from the city, as well as trusted public datasets, to identify landlords with large portfolios and an excessive record of false statements and certifications that present a clear public health threat to tenants. I will bring criminal charges against landlords who expose tenants to air and water quality hazards, particularly wherever we identify systematic and large-scale abuses that disproportionately impact communities of color, disabled people, and low-income residents.

People who live in public housing in New York are particularly impacted. NYCHA has failed to address the problem effectively, sometimes causing courts to step in and put monitoring systems in place. Under the current Mayoral administration’s plan to shift many public housing units into private hands, city monitoring of black mold in NYCHA facilities will disappear, exposing even more New Yorkers to this dangerous problem.

The tireless efforts of community advocates to address toxic mold in housing led to the passage of Local Laws 55 & 61 in 2018. To date, there has been no systematic effort to enforce these laws. As a consequence, housing remains one of the biggest dangers to respiratory health in New York. I will take a strong stance to eliminate environmental hazards that threaten the respiratory health of residents by enforcing these laws. Mold can cause asthma, respiratory damage, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and its more toxic forms are closely linked to “sick building syndrome” which can include “nasal irritation, burning and congestion, cough, wheezing, chest tightness and dyspnea… headache, irritability, lightheadedness, sleeping difficulty, concentration problems and mental fatigue.” Social distancing has ensured that tenants living with these environmental hazards are spending more time at home exposed to these risks, which makes them more susceptible to infection from COVID-19 and severely compromises their ability to fight infection. My office will crack down on false certifications and false statements from landlords regarding mold infestation and remediation efforts in both public and private housing.

Tenants and community organizations in New York have shed light on a disturbing pattern of false certifications and statements from building owners and developers regarding their compliance with local laws, codes, and ordinances, which typically go unpunished. These crimes conceal actions that can produce health problems like neurological damage, a lifetime of respiratory problems, and send innocent families into a spiral of poverty.

Enforcing local laws regulating toxic chemicals, including lead paint

There are many other areas of local environmental law regulating toxic substances that are woefully unenforced. For instance, Local Law 1 requires the remediation of lead-based paint in housing where young children reside, but between 2004 and 2019 the city issued only two violations of the abatement at turnover requirement. Laws like these do little to protect the public when they are not enforced and are reduced to mere norms which can be violated with impunity. Whether it is children drinking water contaminated with lead in housing or public schools, exposure to chronic health hazards in the workplace, illegal dumping of hazardous chemicals, or neighborhood-wide air pollutants emanating from illegal construction hazards, the Manhattan DA can and must be committed to protecting New Yorkers from negligence and misconduct on the part of corporations and landlords.

I will thoroughly investigate these incidents, and prosecute these offenses, particularly when there is evidence that these crimes were committed knowingly by corporate actors.

Furthermore, I will work closely with New York City’s Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group to identify each environmental law within our jurisdiction that is being inadequately enforced and to establish clear interagency guidelines on how penalties will be enforced for each of them. Producing better outcomes will require coordination across our city’s government, and I will work with city partners, including those in the other four boroughs, to rethink our approach to holding bad corporate actors accountable.

Increasing funding for environmental inspections

Laws governing environmental hazards in the built environment require inspection from city agencies in order to issue appropriate violations, citations, and orders to compel mandatory repairs, yet the lack of resources dedicated to these inspections contributes to a widespread violation of the civil rights of residents who develop disabling health problems.22 No city that can afford to spend over $10 billion annually on policing can justify the lack of resources that have been invested in inspecting environmental hazards. Local laws governing compliance at over 1 million buildings cannot be adequately enforced with fewer than 500 inspectors at DOB. I will investigate this systemic problem while working closely with the city’s Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group to facilitate a transfer of resources spent on unnecessary policing to facilitate the expansion of environmental inspections to meet the needs of all residents. If necessary, I will advocate for federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand the DOB workforce.

Environmental risk disclosures in finance 

The Environmental Justice Unit will collaborate with the attorneys in my office who investigate white-collar crimes to investigate cases of fraud related to corporate environmental sustainability statements and environmental disclosure violations. A joint task force between the units will investigate cases of possible fraud, perjury, or violations that may warrant local prosecution or escalation to state or federal authorities. As demand for sustainable investments has grown in recent years, companies have made ambitious public statements committing to meet this demand — and sometimes these statements have no basis in reality. These statements may be fraudulent, depending on the context in which they are made and the specific claims that are put forward.

Given New York’s status as the center of global finance, home to investors and funds alike, the Manhattan DA is in a unique position to assist residents injured by efforts to deceive shareholders — investors, consumers and regulators that produce and perpetuate environmental hazards. My office will take action to protect Manhattan residents from deceptive practices, playing a foundational role in the larger coalitions pursuing environmental justice here and abroad.

Protecting workers from environmental impacts

The Environmental Justice Unit will work with my office’s Worker Protection Unit to address environmental hazards that people face at work. Workers face a wide range of environmental hazards at work, including (but certainly not limited to) lack of access to PPE and other protective equipment (and not just during the pandemic), exposure to chemicals and other toxins, and air quality concerns.

These two units will work together to seek out cases in which workers are being improperly exposed to environmental hazards in the workplace, and aggressively prosecute the corporations that are responsible.

Policy Changes

  • I will create an Environmental Justice Unit to truly transform New Yorkers’ relationship with the city they inhabit and address a wide range of environmental crimes that threaten the health and safety of all of us, but particularly Black, Brown, and low-income New Yorkers.

  • The Unit will address a range of environmental problems in housing, including toxic mold and lead paint.

  • I will increase funding for environmental inspections to ensure that we are proactively seeking out and addressing problems.

  • The Environmental Justice Unit will partner with economic crimes attorneys to search for evidence of environmental risk disclosure violations in finance that rise to the level of fraud, and prosecute those cases.

  • The Environmental Justice Unit will partner with the Worker Protection Unit to investigate and bring charges in cases where workers are improperly exposed to environmental hazards.

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