In ‘groundbreaking’ decision, EPA to investigate 2 state agencies over claims of discrimination

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Federal authorities will open investigations into racial discrimination complaints against two of Louisiana’s agencies for dealing with air pollution and permits in the parishes of St. John the Baptist and St. James.

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency notified the Department of Environmental Quality and the state Department of Health that the federal agency had accepted three complaints filed by residents and several environmental groups at the end of January.

Two centered on ongoing air pollution issues from an industrial plant in St. John, and the other argued that systemic racism was present in permitting decisions in St. James Parish. last August.

In its initial review, the EPA found that the matter fell within the agency’s jurisdiction because both state entities received federal funding and met the timeliness requirement. The decision was not based on the merits of the complaints, according to the April 6 notice.

Nevertheless, it is one of the few – if not the only – Title VI Complaints to investigate in Louisiana, and Sierra Club environmental justice organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley called the decision “groundbreaking.”

The federal investigation comes after EPA Administrator Michael Regan engaged to strengthen its enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program receiving federal funds. Prior to his appointment, Title VI complaints to the EPA were met with extreme delays, often going unaddressed and creating a monstrous backlog.

“I have been involved in environmental issues in Louisiana since 1983. There has never been a Title VI complaint that I know of that has been accepted and tracked by the EPA,” Malek-Wiley said. “Over the years, Title VI (claims) has been shelved and has stayed there. No one took action against them.

For the Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office will investigate whether the methods used in its air pollution control program have the intent or effect to subject people to racial discrimination, including their actions related to emissions from the Denka plant and the decision to grant 14 air permits for the planned Formosa Plastics industrial complex in St. James.

This complex of plastics would be one of the largest in the world, doubling toxic atmospheric emissions. Currently, the project is delayed because the US Army Corps of Engineers is making an environmental impact statement.

“We believe that LDEQ’s permit process, mandated by state law, is fair and impartial. LDEQ handles all issues with a fair and equitable approach. LDEQ will work with the EPA to address this issue,” said Greg Langley, Department of Environmental Quality Press Secretary.

The EPA office will also determine whether the Department of Health has failed to provide St. John residents with information about health threats associated with Denka and other sources of air pollution and to do recommendations on measures to be taken to prevent or reduce exposure. Federal officials will check whether state agencies have procedures in place to ensure they provide meaningful access to its services and actions.

“We take these concerns very seriously. We have received the full complaint from the EPA and are reviewing it closely,” Stephen Russo, legal counsel for the state Department of Health, said in a statement.

St. John residents like Robert Taylor — who founded the Concerned Citizens of St. John, one of the plaintiffs — have fought to reduce emissions from the Denka plant since 2016.

It was then that they learned that the area suffered from far higher cancer risks than the rest of the country due to sniffing chloroprene from the plant, including children sent to learn how to Fifth Ward Elementary School only half a mile from Denka. This school is 93% minority, with mostly black students. Taylor and most of the residents closest to the factory are also black.

A satellite image of the Denka Performance Elastomers plant in Reserve, Louisiana.

“They’re transporting black kids from all over the parish to this school, and this plant is poisoning them,” Taylor said. “When are they going to do something?”

In response, State Department Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Brown said Taylor and his group were “alarmist” at a 2016 parish council meeting, stating that the emissions were not a threat.

The Department of Environmental Quality finally reached an agreement for Denka to reduce emissions by 85%. However, this reduction did not bring it back to the level recommended by the EPA for safety. Denka took issue with the federal threshold and how the risk of chloroprene is assessed while continuing to emit, but the EPA reaffirmed its risk estimates last month.

Since Regan’s visit, the EPA has also expanded monitoring at the plant, Taylor said, placing 18 monitors around Denka and taking measurements all day, every day. But monitoring hasn’t changed the shows, he said, and the real accountability will lie in acknowledging who bears the burden.

“Hopefully they put someone in the DEQ who is really there to represent and protect the people,” Taylor said. “And hold these people accountable for their horrific behavior and activities.”

Both state agencies can enter resolution discussions with the EPA, or the federal agency will complete its investigation within 180 days. If found in violationthe EPA would define the steps for the state to comply with the regulations or risk losing federal funding.

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