© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

DOJ's environmental justice initiative comes to central Illinois

Gregory Harris, the new U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.
Edith Brady-Lunny
Gregory Harris, the new U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois.

The top federal prosecutor in central Illinois says his office is ready to bolster enforcement as part of a national environmental justice initiative.

U.S. Attorney Gregory Harris, whose central Illinois district include Peoria, Bloomington-Normal and Springfield, said the harmful effects of environmental crimes are “too often borne by our underserved communities.”

“It’s not really creating new laws. It’s just sort of enforcing those laws in areas that historically have not benefited from environmental enforcement policies,” Harris told WCBU radio.

The majority of the enforcement work will be on the civil side, such as complying with EPA regulations.

“But we do have criminal statutes that are going to resorted to, to address environmental crimes. Including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and Asbestos Act, and various other federal statutes already on the books, like mail and wire fraud,” Harris said.

Given the makeup of the central district of Illinois, environmental issues surrounding agriculture will be part of the initiative, Harris said.

“We’ve already, in the past, brought criminal charges against individuals who’ve violated the Clean Air and Clean Water Act involving pesticides, and misinforming the public on the use of pesticides,” he said.

Harris pointed to the 2014 conviction of a Gibson City man for illegally selling a product to clear algae from ponds. It contained a harmful pesticide not intended to be used in water that led to fish kills, he said. The man was sentenced to eight years in prison for mail fraud, tax evasion, and illegal application of a pesticide inconsistent with its labeling.

WCBU asked Harris whether he expects his office will be working on cases in and around shuttered or soon-to-close coal power plants in central Illinois. The owners of the shuttered Edwards coal plant near Bartonville paid out millions to settle alleged violations of air quality standards.

“I do. I think we’ll continue to carry on our enforcement of the air quality of coal plants, as we’ve done in the past, using the Clean Air Act. Our initiative that we’re talking about now is directed at areas that have not seen the enforcement action of the environmental laws, unlike the Bartonville matter,” Harris said.

The initiative is being led nationally by the U.S. Department of Justice’s new Office of Environmental Justice. At the local level, the central Illinois district’s environmental justice coordinator is attorney John Hoelzer from the civil team, who previously worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

To lean more about the initiative, or find out how to report a possible violation, visit the U.S. attorney’s Environmental Justice webpage.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.