By MICHAEL PHILLIS, Associated Press
RESERVE, Louisiana (AP) — Sprawling industrial complexes line the route east along the Mississippi River to the mostly black town of Reserve, Louisiana. For the last seven kilometers, the road passes a huge rust-colored aluminum oxide refinery, then the chemical plant at Evonik, then rows of white tanks at the Marathon oil refinery.
But it is the Denka chemical plant that is under intense scrutiny from federal authorities. Less than half a mile from a Reserve elementary school, it manufactures synthetic rubber, emitting chloroprene, listed as a carcinogen in California, and likely by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Angelo Bernard is a grandfather whose family has lived on the reserve for generations. Her three grandchildren attended school, Fifth Ward Elementary. Hurricane Ida forced them to move.
“I’m glad they’re out,” Bernard said. “I feel for the children who have to go to school so close to the factory.”
The survey is part of a push by the Biden administration to prioritize environmental enforcement in pollution-burdened communities. On Saturday, that push kicked up a notch when EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the creation of a new office at the EPA focused on environmental justice.
“We embed environmental justice and civil rights into EPA’s DNA,” Regan said.
Regan visited Reserve last year and said “we’ll do better”. Now the EPA is investigating whether Louisiana regulators are discriminating against black residents by failing to control air pollution in parishes teeming with refineries and petrochemical plants, an area some call “the alley of the cancer”.
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 on environmental issues.
The Biden administration has said that needs to change.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Justice opened its first-ever Title VI environmental investigation into Alabama state and local officials over chronic sewage issues in the majority-black Lowndes County. Another studies illegal dumping in Houston. The EPA has launched its own investigation into Colorado’s airline program, also a first. Activists are taking notice and filing more complaints. Experts say the EPA is processing them faster than in the past.
Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, environmental lawyer at law firm Baker Botts, said the approach represents “seismic change”.
The EPA has accepted three complaints from activists to investigate Louisiana’s air emissions regulations. The agency could withdraw federal funds if it finds a civil rights violation, but local governments more generally agree to make changes.
Bernard said that some nights he smelled something like benzene when he left his home in Reserve. He’s skeptical that the Title VI complaint will force Denka to further cut its shows — there’s too much money at stake.
“If it was California, maybe they’d shut it down. But that’s Louisiana — no way,” he said.
The agreements have generally not attacked discriminatory policies directly – they have focused on procedure. Activists hope that will change.
Emissions from the Denka plant have fallen significantly in recent years, but EPA monitoring has found levels of chloroprene above what activists consider safe.
A Denka spokesman said the defenders were describing a crisis that “simply does not exist”. The state said it had worked to help the company emit less, denying it was taking too long to do more.
And while the Biden administration takes credit for its environmental justice efforts, some say it is also working against the grain. The oil and gas industry which is centered in Louisiana got a boost with 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 of people were arrested in early 1980s to protest plans to dump hazardous waste in the majority black community.
“The creation of the separate office is a very visible step that highlights these issues and shows how important they are to the administration,” Dunn said.
About 30 miles upriver from Reserve is Welcome, a sparsely populated part of St. James Parish. It is an area of heavy industry and sugar cane fields. Many of its mostly black residents have deep local roots and family nearby.
The other Louisiana community complaint 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 says the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is ignoring the threat that new industrial facilities like the one in Formosa pose to already polluted areas. He says too often residents, especially black residents, are left out of the licensing process.
In a recent setback for Formosa’s plans, a Louisiana judge rejected all 14 state-issued aerial permits for the resort, saying environmental justice issues were “at the very heart of this case.”
Gloria Johnson, 61, has lived in the area all her life and said many elderly and disabled residents would be vulnerable if a new industrial complex worsened air quality.
“It’s too close to the neighborhood,” she said, adding that she was unaware of Formosa’s plans until it appeared to be a done deal.
The company said the complex would create 1,200 jobs, generate millions in taxes and fund improvements in the community. He pointed out that local parish officials voted to support the complex. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said he would continue the “tremendous industrial growth” that has occurred along the Mississippi River.
Louisiana environmental regulators said they did not discriminate – companies want to locate in the area because key 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 the EPA in its response to Formosa’s complaint.
Mary Hampton lives on the reservation. She grew up during segregation. Her father helped her secure property so she could build and own her home. She didn’t want a job cleaning kitchens or mopping floors.
“I wanted to find a job where I could earn money,” she said.
Eventually, she became one of the first black women to work at a nearby chemical plant, walking the first day into a sea of white faces shocked by her presence.
But over time, she came to worry about what was coming out of Denka’s factory.
“My main concern was that we had smelled odors for 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 consequences fall on this community.
“We want the EPA to make rules,” Hampton said. “And stick to it.”
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