EPA Investigating Louisiana Agencies Over Industrial Permits

Epa Offices, Washington Dc
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BATON ROUGE (The Center Square) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched an investigation into allegations the Louisiana departments of Environmental Quality and Health discriminated against black residents in assessing permits for large industrial plants.

The move stems from complaints from environmental groups that allege violations of the Civil Rights Act and EPA regulations that prohibit discrimination from entities that receive federal assistance.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a complaint on behalf of Concerned Citizens of St. John and the Sierra Club in January that alleges the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) failed to protect black residents from pollution emitted from the Denka Performance Elastomers plant in St. John the Baptist Parish.

The complaint also alleges the Louisiana Department of Health failed to notify black residents about health risks associated with emissions from the Denka plant, the only U.S. facility that makes chloroprene, The Associated Press reports.

“It is beyond time for the EPA to step in to protect the residents of St. John the Baptist Parish from environmental racism,” Dorian Spence, attorney with Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said when filing the complaint in January. “The Louisiana Department of Health and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality have abandoned their duty to protect this majority Black community. Intervention from the EPA is critical to protect the health and wellness of the residents of St. John.”

A separate complaint from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic highlighted the disproportionate burden of air pollution suffered by black communities in a stretch of industrial development between New Orleans and Baton Rouge commonly known as “Cancer Alley.”

The Tulane complaint is tied to the first peer-reviewed study of Louisiana’s cancer burden that found higher levels of cancer in poor neighborhoods versus affluent neighborhoods.

In total, the complaints target at least seven existing plants and two planned projects in two parishes: a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex in St. James Parish and a $400 million grain terminal in St. John the Baptist Parish, according to the news wire.

EPA Director of Civil Rights Lilian Dorka recently sent notice to environmental groups and state agencies about the EPA’s environmental justice investigation. The review will examine whether the way the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality administers pollution control measures has the effect of racial discrimination, and whether the Department of Health provides adequate information about the health threats from pollution, according to The Times-Picayune.

Gregory Langley, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, told the news site “LDEQ’s permit process, prescribed by state law, is impartial and unbiased.”

“LDEQ handles all issues with a fair and equitable approach,” he said. “LDEQ will work with EPA to resolve this matter.”

Steven Russo, general counsel for the Louisiana Department of Health, told The Times-Picayune the department takes the complaints seriously and is reviewing them closely.

A spokesperson for Formosa Plastics’ “Sunshine Project” in St. James Parish, Janile Parks, defended the project in an email to the AP.

“The Sunshine Project has been thoroughly vetted and approved by parish and state bodies because it relied on sound science in design and met all regulatory criteria,” Parks wrote.

Jim Harris, a spokesman for Denka, issued a statement to The Times-Picayune that alleges the Louisiana Tumor Registry shows there are “no widespread elevated cancer rates in St. John the Baptist Parish compared to the state average.”

“The complaint claims local, state and federal officials have turned a blind eye to health impacts in the area, but in fact these agencies have been studying the situation long before these groups got involved — and choose to consider real science rather than sensational pseudo-studies,” Harris wrote.

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