Civil rights laws target “cancer alley” discrimination

RESERVE, La. Sprawling industrial complexes line the eastbound approach along the Mississippi River to the black-majority city of Reserve, Louisiana. For the last seven miles, the road passes a massive rust-colored alumina refinery, then the Evonik chemical plant, and then rows of white tanks at the Marathon oil refinery.

But it’s the Denka chemical plant that’s under scrutiny from federal officials. Less than half a mile from a reserve elementary school, it makes synthetic rubber that emits chloroprene, which is classified as a carcinogen in California and deemed probable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Angelo Bernard is a grandfather whose family has lived on the reserve for generations. His three grandchildren used to attend Fifth Ward Elementary. Hurricane Ida forced her to relocate.

“I’m glad they’re gone,” Bernard said. “I feel for the children who have to go to school so close to the factory.”

The investigation is part of a push by the Biden administration to prioritize environmental enforcement in communities overwhelmed by pollution. On Saturday, that push was taken a step further when EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the establishment of a new office at the EPA focused on environmental justice.

“We embed environmental justice and civil rights in EPA’s DNA,” said Regan.

The Denka facility is just half a mile from the Fifth Ward Elementary School in Reserve.
The Denka facility is just half a mile from the Fifth Ward Elementary School in Reserve.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Regan visited Reserve last year and said, “We’re going to do better.” Now the EPA is investigating whether Louisiana regulators are discriminating against black residents by measuring air pollution in communities full of refineries and petrochemical plants, a region some have dubbed “Cancer Alley.” designate, not control.

To do this, they use an old tool in a new way. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits anyone receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin. It has been used in housing and transportation, but rarely in environmental matters.

The Biden administration said that had to change.

The U.S. Department of Justice last fall opened its first-ever Title VI environmental investigation against state and local officials in Alabama over chronic sewage problems in majority-black Lowndes County. Another investigates illegal dumping in Houston. The EPA launched its own investigation into Colorado’s air program, also a first. Activists take notice and file more complaints. Experts say the EPA is tackling them faster than in the past.

Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, an environmental attorney at law firm Baker Botts, said the approach represented “a seismic shift”.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the creation of an EPA Environmental Justice Bureau.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the creation of an EPA Environmental Justice Bureau.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The EPA accepted three complaints from activists to investigate air emissions regulation in Louisiana. The agency could siphon federal funds if it finds a violation of civil rights, but local governments more often agree to make changes.

Bernard said he sometimes smells a bit of benzene at night when he leaves his house in reserve. He is skeptical that the Title VI lawsuit will force Denka to cut its emissions further – there is too much money at stake.

“If this was California, maybe they would shut it down. But this is Louisiana — no way,” he said.

Agreements have not usually attacked discriminatory policies directly – they have focused on procedures. Activists hope that will change.

Emissions from the Denka plant have dropped significantly in recent years, but EPA surveillance found chloroprene levels are higher than what activists believe is safe.

Regan speaks to locals during a tour of the neighborhood near Nu Star Energy's oil storage tanks in the parish of St. James on November 16, 2021.
Regan speaks to locals during a tour of the neighborhood near Nu Star Energy’s oil storage tanks in the parish of St. James on November 16, 2021.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

A Denka spokesman said the advocates described a crisis that “simply doesn’t exist”. The state said it was working to help the company cut emissions and denied it had taken too long to do more.

And as the Biden administration gets credit for its environmental justice efforts, some say it also has conflicting goals. The Louisiana-centric oil and gas industry received a boost from the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law this summer. It requires auctions of new offshore oil and gas leases.

On Saturday, Regan announced the creation of the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights in the same place where the environmental justice movement began: Warren County, North Carolina, where hundreds were arrested in the early 1980s to oppose hazardous waste disposal plans to protest predominantly black community.

“Creating the separate office is a very visible step that puts these issues in the spotlight and how important they are to the administration,” Dunn said.

Residents of St. James Parish, Louisiana hold a rally at a Formosa Plastics property.
Residents of St. James Parish, Louisiana hold a rally at a Formosa Plastics property.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, file

About 30 miles upstream from the Reserve is Welcome, a sparsely populated section of St. James Parish. It is an area with heavy industry and sugar cane fields. Many of the predominantly black residents have deep local roots and families nearby.

The other complaint from the Louisiana community accepted by the EPA concerns a local subsidiary of Formosa Plastics called FG LA. It plans to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in the region. The complaint said the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is ignoring the threat that new industrial plants like Formosa’s pose to already polluted areas. It is said that too often residents, especially black residents, are excluded from the permitting process.

In a recent setback to Formosa’s plans, a Louisiana judge threw out the 14 air permits the state had issued for the complex, saying environmental justice issues were “at the heart of this case.”

Residents of the reserve who lived near the Denka facility.
Residents of the reserve who lived near the Denka facility.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Gloria Johnson, 61, has lived in the area all her life and said there are many elderly and disabled residents who are at risk if a new industrial complex worsens air quality.

“It’s too close to the neighborhood,” she said, adding that she didn’t know about Formosa’s plans until it felt like a done deal.

The company said the complex would create 1,200 jobs, generate millions in taxes and fund community improvements. It stressed that local community officials voted to support the complex. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said it will continue the “tremendous industrial growth” that has taken place along the Mississippi River.

Louisiana’s environmental authorities said they wouldn’t discriminate — companies want to move to the region because important infrastructure already exists here. Air permitting decisions are based on well-established requirements, and the public is informed when major projects are being considered, the state told EPA in its response to the Formosa complaint.

Mary Hampton lives on the reservation. She grew up during segregation. Her father helped her acquire property so she could build and own her home. She didn’t want a job as a kitchen cleaner or floor wiper.

“I wanted to find a job that would make money,” she says.

Eventually, she became one of the first black women to work at a nearby chemical plant, and on her first day, she entered a sea of ​​white faces shocked by her presence.

But as time went on, she worried about what was coming out of the Denka facility.

“My main concern was that we’d been smelling things for years and years and years and didn’t even know what we were living next to,” she said. Hampton is the President of Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, which has raised civil rights concerns about the state’s handling of Denka.

She worries about the health of her family and friends and is frustrated that the environmental impact is affecting this community.

“We want the EPA to make rules,” Hampton said. “And stick to it.”

https://nypost.com/2022/09/26/civil-rights-law-targets-cancer-alley-discrimination/ Civil rights laws target “cancer alley” discrimination

JACLYN DIAZ

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