WASHINGTON. On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a series of enforcement measures to address air pollution, unsafe drinking water and other issues facing minorities in three Gulf Coast states following Administrator Michael Regan’s “Path to Justice” trip last fall.
The agency will conduct unannounced inspections of chemical plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities suspected of polluting the air and water and causing health problems to nearby residents, Reagan said. And he will install air monitoring equipment in Louisiana’s “chemical corridor” to tighten controls on chemical and plastics plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. There are several hotspots in the region where cancer risk far exceeds the national level.
The Environmental Protection Agency also issued a notice to the city of Jackson, Mississippi stating that its aging and overburdened drinking water system violates the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The order directs the city to develop a plan within 45 days to “correct the material deficiencies identified” in the EPA report.
In separate letters, Regan urged city and state officials to use nearly $79 million in funding made available to Mississippi under the bipartisan infrastructure act “to address some of the most urgent water needs in Jackson and other areas of Mississippi in need.”
The move was one of more than a dozen moves announced in response to Regan’s tour last November. Regan visited low-income, mostly minority communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas to draw federal government attention to communities that have suffered from decades of industrial pollution.
The EPA Toxic Release Inventory shows that African Americans and other minority groups make up 56% of those who live near toxic facilities such as refineries, landfills, and chemical plants. Negative effects include chronic health problems such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension.
“In every community I visited on the Journey to Justice tour, the message was clear: Residents have suffered too long, and local, state, and federal agencies need to do better,” Reagan said.
Unannounced inspections of chemical plants and other facilities “will keep those facilities on their toes,” he told reporters on a conference call.
At present, inspections are scheduled or with advance notice, Regan said, but that will change soon. “We’re stepping up our aggressiveness to use a tool that’s in our toolbox that… has been there for quite some time,” he said.
When facilities are found to be non-compliant, the EPA “uses every tool available to hold them accountable,” he added.
A pilot project that combines high-tech air pollution monitoring with additional inspectors will begin in three Louisiana parishes: St. John the Baptist, St. James, and Calcasier. The parishes are home to many industrial facilities and have long suffered from water and air pollution.
President Joe Biden has made addressing racial inequalities, including those related to the environment, the centerpiece of his agenda. He promised that at least 40% of new spending on climate and the environment would go to the needs of the poor and minorities. The administration’s commitment to addressing this issue has come under scrutiny again in recent weeks with the departure of two key environmental justice officials. Cecilia Martinez, a senior official at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and David Kiev, who worked with environmental justice groups, left the White House, drawing attention to promises yet to be made.
Reagan, a former environmental authority in North Carolina, has made environmental justice her top priority since taking over last year as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. As the first black man to lead the agency, the matter is “really personal to me, as well as professional,” he told The Associated Press in November.
“I promise to make better people in communities who have suffered for too long,” he said on Tuesday.
Historically marginalized communities like St. John and St. James, as well as cities like New Orleans, Jackson and Houston, would benefit from a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed by Biden, Reagan said. The bill includes $55 billion for water and sanitation infrastructure, while a massive climate and social policy bill pending in the Senate will send more than double that amount to EPA’s programs to clean up the environment and address water and environmental justice issues. .
As part of its enforcement efforts, the EPA is requiring the former DuPont petrochemical plant in La Place, Louisiana, to install fence monitors to detect releases from the facility, Reagan said. The plant is now owned by the Japanese conglomerate Denka.
The agency also said it would push for closer scrutiny of the proposed expansion of the Formosa Plastics plant in St. James and issued a notice of infringement to the Nucor Steel plant, which emits hydrogen sulfide and other harmful chemicals.
Regan said he spoke with New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell about Gordon Plaza, an urban area built on the site of a former toxic waste dump. Gordon Plaza was designated a Superfund site in the 1990s, but dozens of mostly black families still live there.
The EPA will review the site starting in March and add nine houses not included in earlier plans to help families relocate, Reagan said. The city hopes to use the money raised from the infrastructure law to relocate families and build a solar farm on the site.