The EPA recently halted a civil rights investigation that might have addressed some of the major environmental racism concerns of predominantly Black communities in Louisiana's “Cancer Alley”.
In 2022, Earthjustice and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a complaint with the EPA on behalf of Sierra Club AND Concerned Citizens of St. John, a group which represents citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana. The organizations accused the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health Title VI of violating the Civil Rights Act. The complaint claimed that a number of manufacturing facilities “failed to control hazardous air pollution and mitigate its harm” in predominantly Black communities. It also accused the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality of “discriminatory conduct” consisting of “discriminatory actions and continuing discriminatory policies and practices”.
The civil rights investigation was an attempt by frontline community groups to address the dire health and environmental effects caused by heavy industrial plants - including plastics and fossil fuel facilities - situated along the Mississippi River. Communities coping with the direct impact of pollution from these industries claim their placement near mostly Black communities amounted to systemic racism.
Community groups disheartened
In response to the decision, frontline leaders of environmental justice organizations expressed frustration, with Mary Hampton of Concerned Citizens of St. John telling Earthjustice that she was disheartened by the decision adding, “We are suffering, we are dying, and this makes us feel like our lives don’t matter. That’s a hard thing to deal with.”
Dr. Joy Banner of the Descendants Project echoed Hampton’s feelings and said, “After all this fighting, they just abandoned us. But this pain is not something foreign to us. We are used to them making the most vulnerable do all the work.”
Shamyra Lavigne of the faith-based grassroots organization Rise St. James said she felt that communities were “put on the backburner”.
EPA received pushback from Louisiana Attorney General
A report from news publication Grist found that prior to the EPA announcing its decision, officials from the agency were on the brink of introducing huge changes to Louisiana’s permitting process. These changes would essentially have made it harder for industry to set up shop in communities already suffering from huge amounts of pollution. The agreements would have required community involvement in key decision-making processes regarding new industrial facilities and would have put the onus on officials to prove that proposed plants would not harm people of color.
However, Grist also reported that despite progress being made at the negotiating table regarding these agreements, relations between the State of Louisiana and the Federal Government started to fracture. Tensions culminated in late May of this past year, when the state’s Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) sued the EPA.
It remains uncertain whether that lawsuit had a chilling effect on the EPA’s civil rights investigation. One legal opinion suggested the lawsuit was not serious enough of a threat to undo the entire process. What is certain is that those majority-Black communities living in the shadow of these polluting industries have been dealt a significant blow. The general sentiment among several frontline environmental justice groups is that neither the state or the federal government is taking their concerns or lives seriously. Mary Hampton of Concerned Citizens of St. John summarized just how discouraging the EPA decision was when she said, “[The] EPA agreed that what’s happening to us is unfair. We thought the Administration would protect us, but no one wants to stand up to these companies.”