EPA chief visits besieged communities, says help is on the way

EPA Administrator Michael Regan listens to resident Shannon Rainey's speech during a tour of the Gordon Plaza neighborhood in New Orleans on Wednesday, November 17.  Regan says a tour

EPA Administrator Michael Regan listens to resident Shannon Rainey’s speech during a tour of the Gordon Plaza neighborhood in New Orleans on Wednesday, November 17. Regan says that a recently completed “Journey to Justice” tour from Mississippi to Texas allowed her to put “faces and names with what we call environmental justice.” The five-day tour in mid-November put highlighting low-income, mostly minority communities affected by industrial pollution (AP Photo / Matthew Daly)


Michael Coleman’s house is the last of his back street, wedged between a sprawling oil refinery that keeps him awake at night and a massive grain elevator that covers his pickup in dust and makes his breathing problems worse.

Coleman, 65, points to the chimneys floating just outside his garden. “Oh, when the plants came, they built right above us,” he said. “We were surrounded by sugar cane, and now we are surrounded by (industrial) plants.”

The oil company offered him a buyout, but Coleman turned it down. “I’m expecting a good shake,” he said. In the meantime, he faces high blood pressure, thyroid issues and other health issues he attributes to decades of pollution from his industrial neighbors, a Marathon Petroleum refinery and a Cargill. grain deposit.

St. John the Baptist Parish, where Coleman lives, is part of an 85-mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, officially known as the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, but more commonly known as Cancer Alley. The region contains several hot spots where cancer risks are well above levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA administrator Michael Regan visited Coleman and other residents on a five-day trip from Mississippi to Texas in mid-November, which highlighted low-income communities , mainly in the minority, affected by industrial pollution.

A toxic release inventory prepared by the EPA shows that minority groups make up 56% of people living near toxic sites such as refineries, landfills and chemical factories. The negative effects include chronic health problems such as asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

“I’m able to put faces and names with this term we call environmental justice,” Regan said at a press conference outside Coleman’s ramshackle house, where a blue tarp covers damage to the building. roof caused by Hurricane Ida.

“This is what we are talking about when we talk about ‘gated communities’ – those communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution and have to live in those conditions,” Regan said.

A former environmental regulator in his native North Carolina, Regan has made environmental justice a top priority since taking over as head of the EPA in March. As the first black man to run the agency, the issue “is really personal to me, as well as professional,” Regan said in an interview.

“When I look at a lot of people in these communities, they look like me. They look like my son and it’s really hard to see them questioning the quality of their drinking water, ”he said.

Historically marginalized communities like St. John and St. James will benefit from the bipartisan $ 1,000 billion infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden, Regan said. The law provides $ 55 billion for water supply and sanitation infrastructure, while a massive bill on climate and social policy pending in the Senate would inject more than double that amount into health programs. EPA to clean up the environment and solve water and environmental justice issues.

While legislation can help, Regan acknowledged that decades of neglect and widespread health problems among predominantly black and brown communities will not be resolved overnight. Loose permit requirements for industrial sites, along with exclusionary zoning laws and housing practices, have long funneled racial and ethnic minorities into areas close to toxic pollutants at rates far higher than the general population. .

At a congressional hearing in October, oil company executives ducked questions of whether refineries and other facilities are more likely to be located in low-income and minority communities.

“We have oil refineries along the US Gulf Coast and we are very proud to be members of the community there,” Shell Oil President Gretchen Watkins told Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.

In Louisiana, a recent report by an inspector general criticized the EPA for failing to protect St. John, St. James and other parishes from the toxic chemicals chloroprene and ethylene oxide used. in industrial processes.

“If the EPA, the federal government, the state government, the local governments had done it right, we wouldn’t be here,” Regan said in St. John.

He said the EPA “for the first time” is not questioning the existence of environmental injustices.

“We actually recognize that they are doing it,” he said. “The message here to these communities is that we need to do better and we will do better. “


Regan first stopped at Wilkins Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi, where students are forced to use portable toilets outside the building because of the infrastructure’s low water pressure. the ruined city makes the school toilets practically unusable.

The pressure was so low on the day of Regan’s visit that the school was closed. “It’s very frustrating to see the disruption they face,” Regan said.

Fourth grade students who met Regan spoke of their own frustrations. Kingston Lewis, 9, said he didn’t like going out to use the toilet in a mobile trailer.

“It takes a lot of learning time throughout our day, and there is sometimes an unpleasant smell when you go out,” he said.

Principal Cheryl Brown called the school’s reliance on portable toilets “degrading” and “inhuman in every way.”

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said Jackson needed around $ 2 billion to repair his water infrastructure, but expects to receive much less from the infrastructure law and other federal spending. The predominantly black city “often fails to get its fair share of the resources that flow through the state” and its Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature, he said.


Regan also visited Gordon Plaza, a New Orleans neighborhood built on the site of a former toxic landfill. Gordon Plaza was designated a Superfund site in the 1990s, but dozens of families, mostly black, still live there, awaiting redemption, and many feel forgotten.

A 2019 report from Louisiana State University found that the city’s Desire section, which includes Gordon Plaza, had the second highest cancer rate in the state.

During a walking tour, Regan told residents, “You have my commitment that the EPA will partner with all of you to resolve this issue. “

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has pledged $ 35 million for Gordon Plaza, but residents have already heard pledges.

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

Beverly Wright, executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said the problems Regan has witnessed are “generational battles” with no easy answers. Nonetheless, his visit should leave a lasting impression.

“When you can taste the chemicals in your mouth… it’s a lot harder to ignore,” she said.

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