Last fall, EPA head Michael Regan took a tour of communities on the front lines of the battle for environmental justice. Regan made his way through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas on a mission to make good on repeated promises that he would not only take environmental justice seriously but meaningfully address it. On Wednesday, Regan built off of his “Journey to Justice” tour with the announcement that the EPA would be moving forward with a series of actions aimed at holding polluters accountable as well as boosting infrastructure that provides clean water.
“In every community I visited during the ‘Journey to Justice’ tour, the message was clear—residents have suffered far too long and local, state, and federal agencies have to do better,” Regan said in a press release. “The pollution concerns have been impacting these communities for decades. Our actions will begin to help not only the communities I visited on this tour, but also others across the country who have suffered from environmental injustices.”
In Mississippi, the EPA issued a Notice of Noncompliance to the city of Jackson because its aging infrastructure has led to a full-on water crisis for residents. Thousands went without water for weeks during a winter storm last year. Boil water advisories are so commonplace and water pressure issues so rampant that the latter was what shut down school for the day at Wilkins Elementary the day that Regan visited—something he called “unacceptable.” A planned tour of the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant changed drastically for Regan after the plant was forced to shutter and a boil water advisory was issued over what officials believed were a “bad batch of chemicals.”
The pressure is on for Mississippi lawmakers to act in response to what Regan experienced in a day and residents have experienced for years. The EPA plans to send follow-ups to urge them to quickly use the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds issued to the state for crises like what Jackson is experiencing. Mississippi stands to gain nearly $75 million from that legislation to specifically tackle water issues.
In Louisiana, Regan vowed to continue the fight of community leaders in St. John and St. James Parishes. The two river parishes are located in what is known as “Cancer Alley” because of the high concentration of polluters who do business there, including DuPont/Denka. The Denka facility located in Reserve in St. John the Baptist Parish pumps out considerable carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere. Nearby residents face a cancer risk that is 50 times the national average. Groups like Concerned Citizens of St. John, whose leader Robert Taylor participated in a phone call on Wednesday with Regan, were pleased that the EPA demanded that Denka install emissions monitoring tools, which Denka says it will comply with and use.
Simply obtaining data has been one of the hardest battles when it comes to showing just how much damage Denka has caused to the community. St. James Parish, where residents and community groups like RISE St. James have been battling the polluter Formosa plastics, will receive similar monitoring tools. An air monitoring project is also expected to be piloted in Mossville, located in St. James Parish, along with locations in St. John Parish. All data from those tools will be made publicly available. It’s worth noting that I’ve been working since shortly after Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana on behalf of groups like Concerned Citizens and RISE St. James as part of a carpentry co-op dedicated to helping homeowners get one step closer to rebuilding and being able to return to their homes. The fight for climate justice requires many facets, and I’m proud to do what I can to help.
The EPA is in a position to go even further and tackle the large companies who make extreme weather events and storms like Ida all the more common. Polluters who are already facing consequences for their actions include Nucor Steel, which received a Notice of Violation and Opportunity to Confer (NOVOC) on Monday for its “unauthorized emissions of hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid mist, and exceedance of permitted limits for sulfur dioxide emissions at their Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) facility.” Sasol Chemicals in Lake Charles’ Calcaseiu Parish received a similar NOVOC letter from the EPA on Wednesday for its potential violation of the Chemical Accident Prevention Provisions.
The Sasol Chemicals plant, which produces petrochemicals used for plastic bags, automotive parts, and other components, may have stored some of the dangerous chemicals it uses in an unsafe manner that threatens the community. NOVOC letters provide companies an opportunity to correct any violations but also provides a paper trail that establishes where companies are at with meeting EPA requirements. Regan’s last—and perhaps most immediately consequential—action in Louisiana is to review the Gordon Plaza neighborhood’s location in New Orleans, which sits on a former landfill and has been deemed a Superfund site. An expedited report of the neighborhood will include nine additional homes and the review will begin in March. Residents, who have been pushing for a fully-funded relocation from the dangerous site, may finally see their request realized.
Finally, the EPA plans to formally reject the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) less protective risk value for ethlyene oxide (EtO), an incredibly dangerous chemical that has been linked to a host of health issues that affect the brain, nervous system, and has even been found to damage the reproductive system. Residents in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens, and the Houston Ship Channel live near facilities like the Shell Technology Center that regularly emit EtO and are the primary reason why the state of Texas accounts for nearly half the nation’s EtO output. A contaminated rail yard that Union Pacific has vowed to clean up has also plagued the community with health problems. The EPA plans to review Union Pacific’s permit renewal and clean-up actions as it looks toward reaching its environmental justice goals. Additional air quality monitoring will be conducted by the EPA. The agency will monitor TCEQ’s rollout of additional air monitors in impacted communities.
These are all steps in the right direction and provide a strong foundation with which the EPA can build on to ensure that all citizens—especially those who live in economically disadvantaged communities—will no longer face the worst consequences of the polluters who are putting our country, and the world, at risk.