The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent dismissals of three cases that would fix some of the problems in “Cancer Alley” underscores a difficult complaint process that works against Black communities’ best interests.
They fall in line with a history of neglecting marginalized residents and failing to fully realize the legal power of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to a Capital B analysis of civil rights complaints brought since 2014.
It is challenging to write legal complaints and even more difficult to shuffle through the lengthy investigation process, Capital B found. In some instances, investigations have lasted decades as residents have suffered through health issues and industrial polluters have made millions.
Two months after the head of the EPA declared in April that he would “never stop fighting” for residents in “Cancer Alley,” the agency dismissed two civil rights complaints from people in the majority-Black St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana, where residents have the country’s highest cancer risk from air pollution.
These neighborhoods are left breathing dirty air, drinking contaminated water, and living amongst toxic soil without anyone in government or industry taking accountability.
“We thought the administration would protect us, but no one wants to stand up to these companies,” said Mary Hampton, a St. John the Baptist Parish resident, following the dismissal.
And the process might become even more complicated with a conservative U.S. Supreme Court and components of racial equity facing “attacks,” said Deena Tumeh, a lead attorney on the complaints regarding St. John the Baptist Parish.
The complaints were a part of a trio of cases dropped in June that focused on “Cancer Alley,” including another case featuring St. James Parish, where residents recently fought off the development of a $10 billion petrochemical plant that was to be built on top of graves of enslaved people.
But these three dismissals aren’t outliers.
Early into his term, President Joe Biden pledged to use the division at the EPA and its newly minted counterpart at the Department of Justice to mitigate harm in communities saddled with pollution.
In theory, through these civil rights divisions, impacted communities can bring complaints to the federal government if they believe government agencies, including city and state governments and local pollution regulation boards, discriminated against them by over-exposing them to environmental contaminants because of their “race, color, national origin (including limited-English proficiency), disability, sex, and age.”
These complaints rarely go anywhere. Since the first mention of “environmental justice” at the federal level in 1994, roughly 90% of all complaints brought to the EPA by communities overburdened with pollution have been dismissed. So while Biden’s vow fostered new hope — the results have done the opposite.
Capital B’s analysis found that although the EPA has increased staffing in the civil rights division and accepted more cases for investigation under the Biden administration when compared with historical averages, the likelihood of a positive resolution for impacted communities has not increased.
Of the 100 cases brought to Biden’s EPA since January 2021, only one case has been resolved — and the agreement did not lead to any changes that would lower the amount of pollution in the community. In addition, since 2021, the office has resolved three cases that predate the Biden administration and the DOJ has resolved one civil rights case.
By comparison, 2½ years into the Trump administration, the EPA had resolved three complaints brought during his presidency and resolved an additional 11 cases that predated his administration — this is despite the EPA’s staff levels reaching historic lows during this timeframe.
Residents said that even if complaints are resolved and agreements are made between industry, local governments, and the federal government, communities do not experience sweeping changes.
Ultimately, the entire complaint system leaves Americans “alone to fight for their own health and survival,” said Jo Banner, a community organizer and complainant in the recently dropped case regarding St. John the Baptist Parish.
Responding to questions about the agency’s historically high rate of case dismissals and changes under the Biden administration, an EPA spokesperson declined an interview but referred Capital B to the EPA’s Case Resolution Manual, “which lays out [the EPA’s] process for addressing complaints” and a list of complaints currently being investigated.
Six decades of neglect
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is wide-reaching and could be used to limit pollution in Black communities, according to legal experts.
Each of the three recently dropped complaints hinged on Title VI, the section of the act that protects people from discrimination based on race in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.
But the EPA has “spent the last six decades not enforcing Title VI,” said Tumeh, senior associate attorney at Earthjustice. For decades, there was no focus on investigating cases, and the EPA regularly failed to respond to cases within the 180-day period required by the law.
The process to bring a complaint forth is complex, she said, because of stringent technicalities around complaint language and environmental health standards. It opens the door for industries and governments to argue against a claim of discrimination if a facility or instance of pollution falls within environmental laws.
But these standards do not take different economic or social harms into consideration, such as decreased property values, increased smells, and the ways that industrial companies overtake communities through expansion. It’s also nearly impossible to pin the blame for community health ailments on polluters, although multiple studies show the correlations between pollution and poor health outcomes.
Capital B’s analysis found that roughly two-thirds of cases dropped since 2014 were dismissed due to technicalities. Nearly half of cases dismissed were dropped because the EPA felt they did not have the “jurisdiction” to investigate the claims. Other agencies, including the departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services, eventually investigated a smaller share of those cases.
Historically, Black and immigrant populations have been the vast majority of those that have fallen through the cracks. At least 70% of complaints brought since 2014 dealt with allegations of racial discrimination. Across the globe, pollution and toxic contamination leads to 1 in 6 deaths. In the United States, Black people are most exposed.
“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,” said Hampton, the St. John the Baptist Parish resident.
The only complaint resolved under Biden
San Francisco’s largest Black neighborhood, Bayview-Hunters Point, is home to a contaminated site where the atomic weapon “Little Boy” that was eventually used on Hiroshima was once held. Cancer rates in the community have oscillated between two and three times higher than the rest of the city.
In November 2020, community members brought a civil rights complaint to the EPA based on racial discrimination during one of the many environmental cleanups in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. As excavators dug up lead and asbestos-contaminated soil next to a Boys & Girls Club, they “increased the risk of exposure to radiation and toxins, causing harm, injuries, and illnesses to the residents,” the complaint read.
While the racial discrimination complaint was rejected, a complaint was accepted on the basis of discrimination toward those with limited-English proficiency. Roughly 40% of the community are immigrants, and the warnings for the dig were not posted in non-English languages. The agreement between the Bay Area’s Air Quality Management District and EPA did not outline compensation or environmental protection measures, only requiring the local agency to post warnings in several other languages next time.
“If you’re making us have sinus problems, asthma problems, and nose bleeds, that’s something that the [government] gotta deal with,” said Douglas Jenkins, a store owner in the neighborhood.
“We give money out to anything, even to the companies contaminating. So why not to us?”
‘EPA’s abandonment makes us an even bigger target’
Tumeh says the lack of enforcement makes it hard to gauge any improvements under Biden because there isn’t much to compare it to.
Biden gave the EPA a boost by choosing Michael Regan, the architect of North Carolina’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Board, to become the first Black man to run the agency.
The bar for improving the EPA’s division was admittedly low. In 2014, under the Obama administration, the agency went nine months without checking the email inbox that received complaints. Under the Trump administration in 2018, every case brought to the agency was rejected.
Some improvements have been made. Between 2014 and 2020, concerned residents and environmental organizations brought an average of 25 civil rights complaints to the EPA annually. Since Biden took office, the amount of complaints brought to the EPA has risen significantly, with an average of 40 complaints brought annually.
The administration is also rejecting cases at a slower rate than the previous two administrations. Of the 100 cases brought to the office between January 2021 and June 2023, investigators have only outright dismissed 35. This signals that the administration is taking longer to investigate cases. In the seven years before Biden’s administration, it typically took the office 13 months to conclude an investigation. In the first two years of his administration, the number has doubled.
Still, the EPA’s longer look at cases doesn’t mean they’ll ultimately end with a resolution, because the office has struggled to reach agreements with local and state governments, particularly in states with Republican leaders. In Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee, a handful of complaints have been stalled in agreement negotiations for nearly two years.
According to a Grist investigation, pressure from Louisiana’s Attorney General and fears of a reversal from the conservative Supreme Court caused the agency to drop the three landmark cases featuring “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River that is home to the country’s largest concentration of chemical and oil plants.
If the civil rights complaints had moved forward successfully, it would’ve changed how polluting industries received operating permits and, for the first time, considered the cumulative impact that multiple plants might have on a community’s health.
After dismissing the complaints, the EPA said it would still fight for residents in the region through a pending lawsuit against a chemical plant and its recent emissions reduction proposal for dozens of plants in Louisiana. But litigation is never a guarantee, and emissions standards typically take years to implement.
“We were hopeful that EPA’s involvement would lead to systemic changes,” said Banner, the St. John the Baptist Parish organizer, but now “we are concerned that EPA’s abandonment makes us an even bigger target for harmful industrial development.”
But even if a community isn’t “abandoned” and civil rights complaints ultimately reach a resolution, industrial developments still thrive.
Who’s being held accountable?
In 2000, People Against Contaminated Environments, a Beaumont, Texas, community group, submitted a civil rights complaint accusing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, of approving a major expansion of an Exxon Mobil refinery in the city without considering the majority-Black and low-income neighborhood in its shadow. It took the EPA three years to accept the complaint for investigation, and then 14 more years to issue its findings and come to an agreement with the refinery and TCEQ.
The final agreement did not lead to any lowering of pollution in the community. The EPA levied a $120,000 fine against the plant and required the refinery to create a community advisory panel, place a single air quality monitor approximately 1 mile from the facility, and hold two public meetings with EPA and TCEQ representatives to discuss the monitoring data.
“We hope there is eventually a compensation [for us]. The harm didn’t go to the EPA; the harm came to the citizens that live here,” said Chris Jones, a Beaumont resident and community activist.
Since 2017, residents have received little reprieve as the refinery’s hold over the community has only increased. In February, the plant completed a $2 billion expansion — the largest project in the U.S. in over a decade.
The EPA has been nowhere to be found, Jones said. “After the lawsuit, they held two meetings, and then that was the last we saw of them.”
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