The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Saturday it was establishing an Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights using $3 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act earmarked for climate and environmental justice. The announcement coincides with the creation of an office in Warren County, North Carolina—the site of the North Carolina PCB Protest led by community members in the majority-Black town of Afton in protest of a planned hazardous waste landfill. The action is considered one of the earliest of the environmental justice movement.
More than 200 EPA staff will work alongside communities impacted by environmental injustice in an effort to solve these issues across 10 regions. The agency itself will also “incorporate environmental justice into [its] programs, policies, and processes, as allowed by law.” From an external perspective, this means building off of initiatives announced following EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s environmental justice tour and pursuing cases against polluters and bad actors through creative means, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VI states that “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” As the Associated Press notes, using Title VI to combat environmental racism is a relatively new technique for the agency. This has been used in investigations related to wastewater issues in Lowndes County, Alabama, and illegal dumping in Black and Latino communities in Houston, Texas.
At the heart of the Associated Press’ reporting is a community I hold near and dear to my heart: Reserve, Louisiana, in St. John the Baptist Parish in what is known as Cancer Alley. The community has been overburdened for decades by polluters, including the former DuPont plant—now Denka—sitting mere walking distance from residential neighborhoods and an elementary school. The EPA earlier this year accepted three complaints against the synthetic rubber manufacturing plant, and a renewed focus has been directed at Denka’s flaring operations as well as other industrial facilities in Louisiana.
The community was one of numerous sites Regan visited last year on his environmental justice tour. Activists and community leaders are encouraged not just by Regan’s willingness to meet with them, but by his commitment to fighting the very polluters putting their lives at risk. The Denka facility emits dangerous levels of a known carcinogen called chloroprene. Even short-term exposure can cause symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to gastrointestinal issues and heart palpitations.
With last week’s victory against a proposed Formosa facility an encouraging sign for front-line communities locked in this battle, established facilities like Denka will require a whole lot of work to hold accountable. With an actual, functional budget, a new office to do the work, and Regan’s commitment and follow-through, those dreams of environmental justice don’t seem all that far off.