Ignacia Moreno Q & A
By Ryan J. Reilly | April 28, 2022 12:00 pm

Ignacia Moreno in the courtyard of the Robert F. Kennedy Building (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

When she sat down to her first staff meeting with the Environment and Natural Resources Division, Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreo says she knew every face in the room from her seven-year stint at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration.

Moreno was sworn in before the ENRD’s 100th anniversary celebration in November and had her formal installation ceremony in March. She has oversight over ENRD’s work, which covers a variety of environmental issues from the impact of the border fence to the effect of sonar on whales to prosecuting violations of environmental regulations. ENRD was also named the most popular place to work in the federal government.

In an interview with Main Justice Moreno spoke about ENRD’s work with the EPA, the division’s 2010 budget, building relationships with environmental groups, and the “cracker jack” team which helps her manage the division’s case load. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

Main Justice: Just to start out, could you talk a little bit about what your average day is like? How do you manage such a large portfolio of issues?

Ignacia Moreno: First of all my days could not be more interesting. I really have had the opportunity to work on issues that cut across all of the federal agencies and a lot of U.S. government interests that affect people’s lives. I can tell you that I never ever have a boring day. The way to manage such a broad scope is of course with a great team, and I have the good fortune to have both an amazing career team with a very deep bench, and I’ve also been able to bring in a cracker-jack political team to compliment the career team.

I have one career deputy who has been here for a long time, John Cruden I call him ‘Mr. Enforcement,’ Patrice Simms, Bob Dreher and Ethan Shenkman and together they really bring a broad scope of government experience, academia, public interest group [experience]. Ethan Shenkman was here before, Bob Dreher was at EPA, Patrice Simms was at EPA. All of these folks have been in really all of the different places where you’d want to look to for a political team. So it’s a great team, of course my chief of staff [Natalia Sorgente] who was an environmental defense lawyer with the division, and we’ve really been able to hit the ground running.

The first day I sat in this conference room at the head of the table and looked around and I knew everybody, and worked with the section chiefs for seven years when I was here during the Clinton administration, so it was really a wonderful moment to see that I was back home.

MJ: You had been here for seven years during the Clinton administration. What has changed between the year you left and when you came back?

IM: We do have a new and growing set of issues that really weren’t a focal point when I was here before, and one of those areas is we’re doing a lot more work on behalf of our client agencies in the area of military preparedness. We’re working with the Department of Homeland Security to defend some strategic border initiatives. There are lots of issues regarding the same disposal of obsolete chemical weapons. We’re very, very much focused on national security issues, homeland, defense, and I expect that we’re going to be doing an increasing amount of that work.

Another area that we had started doing work when I was here [before] is international issues. As you know, pollution doesn’t respect borders. There are a number of global issues — global pollution issues — that do have impact back here in the U.S. So we are partnering a lot more with our neighbors and our partners abroad. We are also focusing on new Lacey Act criminal enforcement actions to stop the illegal trafficking in protected species and in timber that comes to the United States in products. Increasingly, we’re going to be working with the government in China, our counterparts there, and in Brazil. The Attorney General recently visited Brazil and I’m going to be going later this summer to follow up on some cooperative enforcement initiatives.

The other area were we would like to meet is just a really large number of tribal trust cases. We have about 98 lawsuits which involve about 114 tribes, and the tribes allege mismanagement of trust funds and resources by the Department of the Interior. It is a priority of mine, and of Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli and [Interior Department] Solicitor General Hilary Tomkins, for us to work with tribal leaders to come up with a fair and expeditious solution in these cases. Those are three new areas that are different from when I was here. And then there’s a lot that is the same, we still have some of the cases from when I was last here.

Moreno, Attorney General Eric Holder and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli at Moreno's installation ceremony (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

MJ: You mentioned there’s more of a national security aspect to your job than there was during the Clinton administration. How do those issues effect environmental law?

IM: It comes up in a number of ways, for example, some strategic border initiatives such as the construction of the border fence. Our division would be involved in the element of the land acquisition and in the defense of takings cases. In fact, this year we have several trials. We are the component — we used to be called the Public Lands Division — that is involved in the acquisition of the land for the construction of the border fence. Our defense of challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act — NEPA — for example the Navy is doing exercises. …They have to prepare for conditions in the oceans, and to the extent that their exercises impact protected species such as whales. We have a case in the Supreme Court in which we defended the Navy’s use of mid-range, mid-frequency SONAR in its military preparedness exercises. There was a claim that we shouldn’t do that because of the impact on whales that had not been litigated. So it comes up, and NEPA is a statute that is 40-years-old this year that I do a lot of work under.

MJ: Your office defends the work of the government and also prosecutes and litigates environmental crimes. Is there a way to work proactively to make sure that the government is complying with environmental standards?

IM: I hope that one of the hallmarks of my tenure here is going to be that I am very proactive in having early consultations and often consulting with our client agencies to make sure that as they are taking significant federal actions that they are complying, for example, with NEPA. NEPA requires the agencies to take a hard look to make sure there are not going to be significant environmental effects and that the agency work to mitigate those effects. We could sit and wait for those complaints to come. But we really are engaged in working with our agencies, especially in this time of great growth and innovation so that they are complying with the law, complying with procedures [so] that [if] the agency decisions get challenged, the agencies will be in a more defensible position. We [can] say, ‘Yes, they took all the steps that were necessary.’

We also have agencies like the Defense Department or the Department of Energy which have historic or legacy pollution problems, they are a member of Superfund sites. So we work with them and we work with the EPA to make sure that to the extent that they must address their pollution issues, that they do so. We have a very vigorous Superfund enforcement program, and we will make sure that the polluter will pay, and when it’s the government, we work with our agencies to make sure that they meet their obligations as well.

But you bring up an important point - we have a whole side of our work that is defense, both on the pollution and natural resource side, and then we have a whole side of our work that’s the affirmative agenda, where I feel like we wear the white hat, and we do prosecute criminal cases and civil cases under a multiple number of statutes.

Moreno at her installation ceremony (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

MJ: Do you think it is possible for there to be a shift in the balance — obviously it’s tough to anticipate how many cases you’ll have to defend — but will there be a more aggressive prosecutions that will shift the weight of what that division does?

IM: The way it works is that the defense cases come to us. We have an administration that is engaged in a lot of important issues, and EPA has any number of rules that are going to be coming out and we are already preparing to defend — because somebody will challenge some of these rules. So the cases come to us. We have about 7,500 cases on our docket right now, and it is almost an equal mix of defense and enforcement cases. We have plans to have vigorous and renewed enforcement. …Our folks are going to be working even harder than they work, because we’re not going to minimize our enforcement agenda given the defense challenges. We just balance it.

MJ: You had mentioned at your installation ceremony that you had met with some environmental groups who hadn’t been here [the Justice Department Building] in a number of years. Could you talk a bit about building relationships with these groups?

IM: Sure, my specific reference was to environmental justice leaders, and I was struck by what they said, that they hadn’t been in this building in nine years. It is important to me that I hear not only from the environmental justice community, but the environmental groups, I’ve had them here as well. In fact, it was one of the first things I did hear, reach out to environmental groups, environmentalists and the environmental justice community. I’ve had multiple meetings with my counterparts at client agencies to hear what it is they’re doing, what it is we can do to help.

And I will be meeting with some industry groups as well, as well as counterparts abroad. I’ve done this so that I can hear from these different interests ideas that they have for how we might focus our priorities, to hear what’s worked, and what hasn’t worked. I think we do our best in service of the American people when we hear from the American people and all of these different interests.

The pollution burdens that effect certain communities are very important to me. A lot of people call it environmental justice, that’s what I call it too, and the president and the Attorney General have also spoken about this. I am very focused with the team here, both the career team and the political team, to see how we can make environmental justice a reality in this country. I personally worked on environmental justice guidelines the last time that I was here and I came back thinking I really want to work on cases. So with EPA, we’ve been engaged in a dialogue to see how we focus the resources, what cases we bring, to match up with the priorities that EPA has articulated.

Ignacia Moreno (file photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

MJ: One of the early criticisms that environmental groups brought up during the nomination process was your work with GE [General Electric], but there hasn’t been much criticism since. Do you think your time at GE brought you experience that helps in your role here?

IM: I will say that all of my experience has helped me. It’s really amazing how at some point in the day I’ll think ‘I’m glad I did that.’ There’s no question the seven years I spent here were invaluable to me, and the time that I spent at GE as well as in the private sector, again, I consider those assets. I really do have a 360-degree view that is very helpful in my thinking about how things will play out and how best to meet some of the challenges. I couldn’t be more committed, and I intend to have a very strong enforcement program.

MJ: Under the budget request for next year, the division requests money for tribal trust litigation and criminal and civil enforcement. What are some of the things you hope to do in those areas?

IM: Well in the tribal trust cases, we do have as I mentioned earlier a very large docket of cases and it’s not just the number, the cases are highly, highly complex. We do have a need for resources to meet the litigation demands that are brought by those cases. I’m hoping that we will be able to, in parallel, engage in a settlement process with tribal leaders. We have already done some outreach to begin that process. These cases will take some time, even in an expedited process to resolve, so the additional resources are going to help us be on both of those tracks.

On the other side of the house, we are looking at opportunities to bring affirmative cases. We also litigate to protect tribal sovereignty and tribal resources and to resolve some of the cases through settlement or litigation if we can’t settle, than we can rededicate some of those resources. But right now, we are thinking that we are going to need to just engage at that additional level on those cases.

On the criminal level and on the civil enforcement side, we have very large cases under the new source of review provisions of the Clean Air Act. Again, very complex cases, but if you’ve seen some of our more recent press, we are achieving some settlements, and those settlements come from vigorous enforcement efforts, they’re born from those activities. EPA is looking to expand into new sectors, from the coal fire power plant sector where a lot of the litigation has been to the cement industry and glass manufacturing…. There are going to be any number of — already ongoing but more — Clean Water Act enforcement, including to address treasured waters like the Chesapeake Bay right in our backyard.

On the criminal side, I mentioned earlier the Lacey Act, illegal trafficking in wildlife, flora and fauna, we are doing a lot more work in that regard. I’ve started meeting with U.S. Attorneys across the country, and I’m smiling because I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and will be doing a lot more to partner with them and help establish some important task forces. These are local, federal, state law enforcement officers investigators and some of the lawyers. We launched the task force, and I learned that we got five referrals coming out of that meeting. Important referrals, they’ll address really egregious problems in those communities that we need to protect. So I’m excited about those efforts. We get the cases from EPA and EPA is raring to go.

MJ: Any cases that you are especially proud of or any trends you see emerging?

IM: I’m very excited about what we’re going to do in environmental justice and in the international program and the tribal issues. These are things that are already in the works, you’ve already been seeing some of them. Our criminal program as well, I think you’re going to be seeing more of that. I guess the thing that I see as most exciting every day is that I have this opportunity to come here and do this work.


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