ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, La. — As white smoke wafted from a massive oil and gas refinery that sits near his backyard, Michael Coleman reminisced about the sweet days of his childhood, before sugar cane fields that stretched for miles were sold and replaced by chemical companies that wiped out the “nice little community we had here.”
Coleman, 65, has told the story of how his neighbors gave up their homes and fled the chemical corridor known as Cancer Alley many times, but never to a member of the president’s Cabinet. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan listened while standing about three feet to his left.
Nearly a year after President Biden vowed to make environmental justice a centerpiece of his climate policy, Regan traveled to an area where African Americans experience some of the worst pollution in the nation and suffer from cancer rates well above the U.S. average. He touted a just-enacted infrastructure package that provides $300 billion for projects targeting pollution, including up to $15 billion to replace lead pipes that poison drinking water, as evidence of the new administration’s focus on disadvantaged communities.
But many who have spent years fighting pollution and an epidemic of cancer remain skeptical that projects promised in Washington will actually reach the places where they live.
Regan covered about 550 miles during his five-day “Journey to Justice” listening tour, stopping in Jackson, Miss., to hear about water shortages and contamination; New Orleans, to meet with people whose houses sit atop a toxic Superfund site; and Houston, where Black and Latino residents detailed a litany of community ills including flooding, petroleum-plant pollution and giant garbage dumps.
“I’m able to put faces and names with this term we call environmental justice,” Regan said on the walk up to Coleman’s tiny, wood-frame house.
“I’m able to look around and see a grain elevator on one side of Mr. Coleman, a refinery on the other and a railroad on the left here,” he said. “This is what we’re talking about when we talk about fence-line communities, disproportionately impacted by pollution.”
Black people are nearly four times as likely to die of exposure to pollution than White people. According to “Fumes Across the Fence-Line,” a recent study by the Clean Air Task Force, African Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than White Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in communities that border a plant or factory.
Although the administrator was warmly received and praised for showing up, residents and activists said they want more than just a sympathetic ear. They believe the EPA has been too relaxed when toxic pollution became a clear threat to public health, and they expect Biden to make good on his pledge to direct billions of dollars to environmental justice and equity projects starting early next year.
Regan said his trip aimed to convey just that: “I’ve talked to the president more than once about his commitment to environmental justice and equity, and I know the president is committed.”
Part of the tour, he said, “is to come into these communities and say, in a very honest and straightforward way, ‘You’ve been right on many issues for decades and the government has not done all that it should, and we need to work together to right some of these wrongs.’
“Are we going to solve all these problems? Absolutely not,” Regan said. “But the ones that we can solve, that’s what I’m pledging to do.”
He spoke about federal dollars as well as stricter environmental enforcement. The infrastructure package will provide grants to reduce lead contamination in paint, dust and soil, and the administration is pushing a separate budget bill that could provide billions more in green investments. And the EPA has subjected several projects to intense scrutiny since Biden took office, shutting down a troubled oil refinery in the Virgin Islands, forcing Chicago to assess pollution impacts before allowing a scrap metal operation to relocate to a Latino community, and dedicating $50 million to better monitor air quality in some disadvantaged communities.
Residents, activists and politicians who joined the tour said they saw someone rare in 45-year-old Regan: a young, earnest Black man with the power to ease pollution that has burdened their communities throughout their lives. Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard — often a fierce critic of government — said he hadn’t seen anything like Regan’s listening tour in more than five decades of activism.
“He was here,” Bullard said. “It’s one thing to fly into a place like Jackson and just stay there.” Regan’s black SUV started in Jackson, where he spent a day, then traveled nearly 200 miles to New Orleans. After two days in the area, he traveled another 200 miles to Lake Charles. He spent a day there before traveling another 150 miles for a two-day stop in Houston.
After touring Houston with Regan, Bullard — who sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council — walked away impressed.
The administration plans to release a scorecard in January that would grade its environmental justice achievements. Bullard cautioned that it’s too early to grade a president who’s been in office less than a year: “It would be premature.”
Beverly Wright, the chief executive of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in east New Orleans, who also sits on the panel and toured with Regan, said she would give the administration an “I,” for incomplete.
“It could go anywhere from there, an A, a C, D or F,” Wright said. Regan made a strong impression, she said, but “we’ll have to see.”
Wright’s center was the administrator’s first stop in Louisiana. He met with about a dozen community representatives who spoke with him privately before they boarded a small tour bus for the 65-mile ride to St. John the Baptist Parish.
There, in Cancer Alley — which winds for 85 miles along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge — he stopped at Fifth Ward Elementary School, where hundreds of mostly Black students aged 10 and under attend classes and romp on a playground near the Denka Performance Elastomer plant once owned by DuPont.
The plant emits a hazardous pollutant called chloroprene, which the EPA identifies “a likely human carcinogen” that can cause rapid heartbeats, gastrointestinal disorders, dermatitis, temporary hair loss and corneal damage.
The census tract containing the school has an overall cancer rate that is 25 percent higher than the state average, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed a class-action lawsuit against the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board on behalf of its Black students.
After the EPA determined in 2016 that anything above 0.2 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter was dangerous, Denka agreed to reduce emissions by 85 percent despite disagreeing with the finding.
The company succeeded, according to a statement released in March. Denka said it also “developed a voluntary emission reduction program,” coordinated with the state, which was completed in 2017 “at a final cost of over $35 million.”
Concerned Citizens of St. John head Robert Taylor, who sat beside Regan during the tour there, said the exposure of schoolchildren “infuriated and frightened” him.
Born and raised in the parish, Taylor, 81, grew up to become a craftsman who built his house with the help of friends and moved in with his bride in the early 1960s. “Then along came DuPont and dumped this conglomerate on us and blindsided us,” he said.
Twenty years later, he said, his wife developed breast cancer and survived. But his mother died of bone cancer, he said, along with his brother, nephew, uncle, sister and cousin.
“Cancer has decimated our community,” Taylor said. “For years we didn’t know what it was. By then, the government and other people had labeled this place Cancer Alley, but we were unaware of it — the poor, uneducated, unknowing people.”
From the school, Regan’s bus continued to his next stop, Michael Coleman’s house. It sat alone in a green field, entirely unremarkable except for what loomed right behind it: a Marathon Petroleum Corp. facility with its enormous storage tanks and silvery smokestacks as tall as skyscrapers.
Before the facility arrived in the 1970s, sugar cane fields stretched as far as the eye could see. “We used to have sugar cane behind the house, sugar cane in front, sugar cane all around,” Coleman said.
The fields gave way to a Cargill Inc. processing plant, as well as the DuPont synthetics plant purchased by Denka and dozens of other manufacturers.
Coleman’s house is the last one standing on West 24th Street in unincorporated Reserve. He said Marathon called to ask if he was interested in selling and he told them no.
The price the company offered was too low. One neighbor, Coleman said, sold for $50,000, and another for $40,000. “A lot of people Marathon bought out weren’t treated fairly, especially my neighbor across the street,” he said.
Coleman felt that Marathon, a multibillion-dollar company, should offer more. His parents willed the house to their eight children. “We would have to split that money.”
Regan listened to Coleman, his eyes moving at times from the speaker to the giant chemical plant that overshadows his house.
But what can be done about it?
“The president has put everyone on notice from day one that his Justice40 Initiative will dedicate 40 percent of … [the benefits of federal climate investments] to those who need it the most,” Regan said.
The White House will create programs to complement some that already exist, though Regan declined to provide details. “I’m going to work with every single governor, every single elected official … to make sure those who need resources the most get the resources,” he said.
Regan said he would use his legal authority and enforcement powers to lean on chemical companies in Cancer Alley and elsewhere to comply with emissions standards set by the EPA, just as he did in St. Croix after the Limetree Bay refinery accidentally spewed oil over a community twice.
From Coleman’s house, Regan rode 26 miles to St. James to meet with local leaders such as Sharon Lavigne, a Goldman Environmental Prize winner and the founder of Rise St. James, a grass-roots group formed to fight a plastics manufacturer that sought to locate near her home.
Another chemical company, NuStar Energy, already dominates her small community. Lavigne said she nearly broke down crying because Regan, a Black man, was listening and promising to help.
“I think he’s God-sent, I really do,” Lavigne said. “He’s young, energetic, smart and he has a heart. He listened to our cries. He listened that day.”
But in the same breath, Lavigne, 69, said she has little faith that struggling local activists in St. James and St. John parishes will see a dime of the federal dollars their communities need.
In her view, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who supported a plan to place a Formosa Plastics plant in St. James that the community defeated, is unlikely to direct money to communities that oppose him. Other activists raise the same concerns about Republican governors in states such as Texas, Florida and Alabama.
“I can tell you right now, we will not get money from the government to do any of this,” Lavigne said. “The parish might get money, and they’ll do whatever they want with it.”