Two months after touring “environmental justice” communities in three southern states, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan on Wednesday announced bold steps to address complaints from residents about tainted drinking water, chemical plants near homes and a school, and breathing toxic air.
Mobile units will mostly prowl St. James’ Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish, where the Denka Performance Elastomer chemical plant, once owned by DuPont, sits within 1,500 feet of an elementary school and can be seen from dozens of homes. Regan said the equipment “will dramatically improve the EPA’s ability to measure pollution quickly.” The agency will “work with local organizations to host trainings for community members to familiarize them with the technology” and how the EPA monitors air quality.
“When I was in Louisiana, nearly everyone I spoke with had a family member or neighbor who’s been impacted by a serious illness,” Regan said. “We’re talking about generations of people living just a stone throw away from industrial facilities who may be sickened by the air that they breathe.”
Regan took a personal interest in Fifth Ward Elementary School in the shadow of the Denka plant. “As an administrator and as a parent, I am extremely concerned about the potential pollution these children breathe every day. I wrote a letter to the CEO of Denka expressing those concerns,” he said.
The EPA is spearheading the Biden administration’s push to place environmental justice at the center of the president’s climate agenda and to undo burdens placed on Black, Latino, Indigenous and poor communities across the United States.
In an attempt to bring more facilities into compliance with antipollution regulations, Regan ordered the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to use its authority to conduct surprise inspections at facilities suspected of failing to comply.
A new pollution accountability team will deploy in the South this spring “to provide strong environmental compliance and monitoring,” an EPA statement said. The program combines high-tech air pollution monitoring and “boots-on-the-ground inspectors” to enforce pollution regulation in communities. The agency’s air quality monitoring airplane, ASPECT, will observe facilities from the sky as workers monitor on land.
On Tuesday, the EPA hit the city of Jackson, Miss., with a notice of noncompliance for failing to repair and maintain equipment that reliably produces safe drinking water. This week, malfunctions resulting from harsh winter weather forced the city to issue another boil-water notice for residents who have already suffered.
Last year, some of Jackson’s 150,000 residents went without drinking water for a month following a winter storm. Even when the weather is nice, residents distrust the often-discolored fluid that pours from their taps and a dilapidated water and sewage infrastructure.
Regan traveled to Jackson, New Orleans, the parishes along Cancer Alley, Mossville, La., and Houston in November for his “Journey to Justice” tour of communities impacted by pollution.
In response to residents who said they could sniff chemicals in the air from the Denka facility, the EPA required the plant to install monitors on its borders to identify emissions sources at the site so that the agency could better observe it and quickly respond.
Regan’s letter to Denka and DuPont CEOs pressed them “to protect residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, including children that learn and play along their fence line, after periodic elevated concentrations of chloroprene were measured nearby.”
In St. James Parish, concerns about a proposed Formosa Plastics plant prompted the agency to join the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to require a strong environmental impact statement before a permit for the plant’s expansion can be considered.
The EPA said it would step up inspections of industrial plants in Mossville, a Louisiana town established by formerly enslaved men and women on a highway between New Orleans and Houston. Helicopter flyovers and mobile air-monitoring will be activated there, along with a $40,000 continuous monitor to detect fine particulate matter that hampers the ability of children and adults to breathe.
Robert Taylor, executive director of Concerned Citizens of St. John, said their complaints about Denka plant and its proximity to a school have mostly been ignored until now.
“Now we have the administrator himself standing up on that property and looking at those children, attempting to interact with the people responsible for this, and they still wouldn’t show,” Taylor said.
“But he was dealing with us and our people, and we are so thankful for this new administration [for] putting feet on the ground. And I personally want to thank them.”