January 27, 2022
EPA head tours embattled communities, says help on the way

EPA head: ‘Journey to Justice’ tour ‘really personal for me’

RESERVE, La. — Michael Coleman’s home is the final one standing on his tiny road, squeezed between a sprawling oil refinery whose sounds and smells maintain him up at evening and a large grain elevator that covers his pickup in mud and, he says, exacerbates his respiration issues.

Coleman, 65, factors to the billowing smokestacks simply exterior his yard. “Oh, when the plants came in, they built right on top of us,” he said. “We was surrounded by sugarcane, and now we’re surrounded by (industrial) plants.”

St. John the Baptist Parish, the place Coleman lives, is a part of an 85-mile (137-kilometer) stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge formally often called the Mississippi River Chemical Hall, however extra generally referred to as Most cancers Alley. The area comprises a number of hotspots the place most cancers dangers are far above ranges deemed acceptable by the Environmental Safety Company.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Coleman and different space residents on a five-day “Journey to Justice” tour that highlighted low-income, principally minority communities adversely affected by a long time of commercial air pollution.

“I’m in a position to put faces and names with this time period that we name environmental justice,” Regan stated at a information convention exterior Coleman’s ramshackle residence, the place a blue tarp covers roof injury from Hurricane Ida.

“This what we’re speaking about once we discuss ‘fence-line communities’ — these communities who’ve been disproportionately impacted by air pollution and are having to dwell in these circumstances,” Regan stated, gesturing to the grain elevator in entrance of him and refinery behind.

In close by St. James, Regan met with Brenda Bryant, whose neighborhood is surrounded by oil storage tanks and a hulking refinery.

“We are literally sandwiched in. And I’m the meat,” Bryant told Regan, who assured her that she and others he met with “will have a seat at the table” as officers develop options for long-ignored communities.

A former environmental regulator in his native North Carolina, Regan has made environmental justice a prime precedence since taking on as EPA head in March. As the primary Black man to lead the company, the difficulty “is basically personal for me, in addition to skilled,” Regan stated in an interview.

“As I have a look at most of the of us in these communities, they appear identical to me. They appear identical to my son, and it’s actually powerful to see them query the standard of their ingesting water,” he stated.

Traditionally marginalized communities like St. John and St. James, together with cities akin to New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi, and Houston will profit from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation signed by President Joe Biden, Regan stated. The legislation contains $55 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure, whereas a sweeping local weather and social coverage invoice pending within the Senate would pump greater than twice that quantity into EPA packages to clear up the setting and deal with water and environmental justice points.

At a congressional listening to in October, oil firm executives sidestepped questions on whether or not refineries and different services are extra doubtless to be positioned in low-income and minority communities.

“We’ve acquired oil refineries alongside the U.S. Gulf Coast, and we’re very proud to be group members there,” Shell Oil President Gretchen Watkins advised Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.

“Your profit-driven decisions threaten my life, the lives of my household, my neighbors, and our communities each single day,” Bush responded.

In Louisiana, a current inspector common’s report faulted EPA for failing to defend St. John, St. James and different parishes from chloroprene and ethylene oxide, poisonous chemical compounds utilized in industrial processes.

“If EPA, the federal authorities, the state authorities, the native governments had been doing issues accurately, we wouldn’t be right here,″ Regan stated in St. John. “There’s clearly an issue with the best way we now have carried out our legal guidelines. And fairly frankly, there could also be an issue with current legislation.”

Environmental injustice shouldn’t be restricted to the South, and Regan has additionally visited hard-hit areas in cities akin to Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, in addition to brownfields and tribal areas in North Dakota.

“For the first time we’re not questioning whether or not these environmental injustices exist,” he stated. “We are literally acknowledging that they do. We want to give these people a voice and discuss what we’re going to do to clear up these issues transferring ahead.”

Extra instantly, Regan promised that EPA will use its enforcement energy to guarantee a former DuPont petrochemical plant close to Coleman’s residence complies with federal laws on emissions of chloroprene and different dangerous chemical compounds. The power is now owned by Japanese conglomerate Denka.

“We now have enforcement authority that we’re taking a really shut have a look at to deliver the ability in compliance — not simply this facility, however all of the services throughout the nation who’ve been non-compliant, who haven’t honored the agreements that we now have to be good neighbors and defend these communities,” he advised residents in St. John.

“The message right here to these communities is, we now have to do higher and we’ll do higher,” Regan stated.

SCHOOL WITHOUT WATER

Regan’s first cease on the tour was at Wilkins Elementary Faculty in Jackson, Mississippi, the place college students are pressured to use moveable restrooms exterior the constructing as a result of low water stress from the town’s crumbling infrastructure makes faculty bathrooms just about unusable.

The stress was so low on the day Regan visited that the college was closed. The subsequent day, greater than a dozen Jackson faculties have been closed due to a scarcity of water.

As the daddy of an 8-year-old, “my coronary heart was damaged at this time,” Regan told The Associated Press. “It’s very frustrating to see the disruptions they face.”

Fourth-graders introduced to the college to meet with Regan spoke of their very own frustrations. Kingston Lewis, 9, stated he doesn’t like going exterior to use the restroom in a cell trailer.

“It takes lots of studying time all through our day, and it has an disagreeable scent typically while you go exterior,” he advised Regan.

Principal Cheryl Brown referred to as the college’s dependence on moveable bathrooms “degrading” and “inhumane on all ranges.” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba called the water outages ”a cycle of humiliation within our community” and an example of “what it looks like for our children when we fail to provide.”

Lumumba stated in an interview that his impoverished metropolis wants about $2 billion to repair its water infrastructure, however expects to obtain far much less from the infrastructure legislation and different federal spending. The bulk Black metropolis usually “fails to get its equitable share of resources that funnel through the state” and its Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature, he stated.

AMERICAN DREAM OR ‘NIGHTMARE’?

Regan additionally visited Gordon Plaza, a New Orleans neighborhood constructed on the location of a former poisonous landfill, and the creosote-contaminated Kashmere Gardens neighborhood in Houston. Gordon Plaza was designated as a Superfund website within the Nineties, however dozens of principally Black households nonetheless dwell there, ready for a buyout, and lots of really feel forgotten.

A 2019 report by Louisiana State College discovered that the town’s Need part, which incorporates Gordon Plaza, had the second-highest most cancers price within the state.

Throughout a strolling tour, neighborhood residents gave Regan a T-shirt as they urged him to bear in mind their group’s identify. They cheered when he stated the phrases “Gordon Plaza” had reached the White Home. “You have my commitment that the EPA will partner with you all to solve this problem,” he stated.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has pledged $35 million for Gordon Plaza, however residents have heard guarantees earlier than.

“You’re trying to live out the American Dream — which turns out to be a nightmare — and you can’t get justice, you know,” stated resident Earl Smothers.

“It’s environmental racism,″ resident Lydwina Hurst advised Regan. Nonetheless, Hurst stated she appreciated Regan’s go to and is hopeful residents will lastly get the assistance they want.

Beverly Wright, govt director of the Deep South Heart for Environmental Justice, a New Orleans-based group that hosted Regan at a number of Louisiana websites, stated the issues Regan witnessed are “generational battles” with no straightforward answer.

Nonetheless, she’s optimistic that “the wheels are aligning” to lastly deal with issues which have festered regionally for a long time.

“I believe placing a face and a reputation on these issues makes it personal,” Wright said. “When you can taste the chemicals in your mouth and smell the toxins downwind, it’s a lot more difficult to ignore.”

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