PUBLIC POLICY – The EPA Administrator Visited The Cancer-Causing Pollution Hot Spots, Highlighted By ProPublica And Promised Reforms

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Two days after ProPublica published a first-of-its-kind analysis of industrial air pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that its administrator, Michael S. Regan, would visit the communities featured in our reporting. During last week’s “Journey to Justice” trip across the South, Regan toured the Houston ship channel, the Louisiana community of Mossville and a stretch of land along the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley — places that we identified as among the largest hot spots of toxic air pollution in the country. ProPublica was told by several environmental advocates that they hosted different parts of the tour. They first heard about it in late October after receiving questions from the EPA about their high cancer risk. Mossville and Cancer Alley were long-time residents who believed that this was the first visit by the country’s top environmental regulator.

Our investigation exposed significant flaws in how the EPA protects vulnerable neighborhoods from hazardous air pollution. More than 1,000 hot spots of air pollution across the country were identified. We found that census tracts with majority Black residents have more cancer risk than those with majority-white residents.

In an interview, Regan told ProPublica that he appreciated the urgency that the newsroom’s reporting brings to the EPA’s ongoing efforts to address environmental inequities. Regan said that his team had consulted our analysis in order to reconsider how they could tackle industrial pollution throughout the country.

“We’ve looked very carefully at your reporting and we’re incorporating much of it into our refined and revised system ourselves as well, so that we can begin to address these issues,” Regan said. We are working out how to do this in a way that allows us to set standards, enforce laws, and move forward in a legal and scientifically sound manner. This is an all-hands-on-deck approach. This is an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

On Thursday, the same day that Regan visited Mossville, dozens of EPA staffers across national and regional offices discussed their plan to examine hot spots identified by ProPublica’s investigation. Separately, federal staffers discussed the agency’s state of the art air modeling tool. This tool pinpoints human health risks from toxic emission and was underused by the EPA. We reported on this issue.

The administrator’s caravan charted a penitent itinerary along the Gulf Coast, calling on communities of color that the EPA has historically failed to protect. Regan listened as residents shared their stories of how the government had failed to protect them for decades from Regan on front porches and in churches. Many of the people Regan met had lost loved ones to cancers linked to the hazardous chemicals in the air. Regan stated that it was impossible to believe that the industry has not taken many communities hostage or surrounded some communities.

In Cancer Alley, Regan stopped by Michael Coleman’s home, which is nestled between a grain elevator, an oil refinery and a railroad — and lies near a handful of massive chemical plants. ProPublica’s analysis showed that the EPA underestimates the cancer risk in Coleman’s neighborhood. This is because it examines all facilities separately. The cumulative risk, which is the health impact of air pollution on the human body, is often hidden from regulators and residents. ProPublica was asked by Regan if the EPA would consider cumulative risk. He said that the EPA will be “very creative” and “entrepreneurial” to address the problem, as well as working with Congress to clarify the law.

Down the road from Coleman’s home is the Fifth Ward Elementary School, which educates about 400 students and sits on a block where the estimated additional cancer risk from toxic air is 1 in 1,600, according to our analysis, or six times the EPA’s upper threshold for acceptable risk. The EPA sets the upper limit of acceptable lifetime excess cancer risk at 1 in 10,000 — meaning that if 10,000 people are living in an area, there’d likely be one additional case of cancer over a lifetime of exposure. ProPublica was told by experts that this threshold is not sufficient to protect public health.

When asked whether the agency will reconsider this limit, Regan said, “The honest answer is we have to reevaluate the way we’ve been approaching diagnosing these problems. We wouldn’t be here if EPA, the federal government and state governments were doing things right. We have a problem with how we have implemented our laws. And, frankly, it may also be a problem in the existing law. We need to determine whether even existing law, if followed, is protective enough.”

In response to ProPublica’s questions about the immediate next steps the agency plans to take to protect overburdened communities, Regan pledged to ramp up the agency’s enforcement activities. He stated that when we see disparate effects occurring, we need to increase our monitoring and inspections. We must increase enforcement when we see companies not complying. This is more than a feeling. The data is there.”

Emma Cheuse, an attorney and air toxics expert at the advocacy group Earthjustice, characterized the administrator’s remarks as momentous. She said, “It’s been a while since we heard an administrator from the EPA respond to communities, admit what they’re going though and say that he’s working on concrete next steps for making their lives better.” “His recognition of the need for the EPA to transform its approach and finally protect communities will mean a lot if the agency walks the walk.”

Mustafa Ali, who worked on environmental justice at the EPA for over 20 years, applauded Regan’s strong commitment to reevaluating the EPA’s policies in the wake of ProPublica’s investigation, adding that he and his colleagues had been trying for decades to raise greater awareness of the issues laid out in our reporting. Ali, currently vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, said that “In all the years that I and others did this work there was very little money to be able do it.” “Now the administrator is promising to act.”

EPA Administrator Toured Multiple Hot Spots Highlighted by ProPublica

Explore our map to learn more about the estimated risks across the country. Source: ProPublica analysis EPA data. Credit: Lucas Waldron/ProPublica

On a cloudy Thursday morning, Regan boarded a bus with current and former residents of Mossville, a historically Black community that has been subsumed over decades by the steady expansion of more than a dozen chemical companies. Mossville was home to hundreds of families. It was established by former slaves. Now locals say around 50 households remain. They wanted Regan, to check out what was left in their area.

The bus set off along the fence line that separates the road from an industrial complex owned by Sasol, a South African chemical firm. Sasol’s recent build-out prompted many of the area’s residents to accept the company’s controversial offer to buy their homes.

“Mr. Regan, I’m going show you how vast it is,” Carolyn Peters, a special education teacher, and president of Concerned Citizens of Mossville, said. “So remember where we are starting.” She wore an auburn T-shirt printed with the group’s name and logo, which features an illustration of Pete Moss and his wife riding a horse-drawn wagon — a nod to the descendants of the area’s founding family and preindustrial roots.

“It completely changed the skyline,” said Peggy Anthony, who grew up in Mossville and later moved near Washington, D.C., where she worked for many years in the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. Stafford Frank, her brother, was sitting next to her, pointing out former streets, schools, and stores. Peters said to Regan, “I want it to be like when it really Mossville was.” Peters told Regan that “it was beautiful”.

“In this area, there are about 15 different chemical and industrial plants,” Frank said. Frank said, “It’s more than Sasol who’s risen to the top of Mossville.” Peters nodded as he rattled off names and acronyms.

“We’re surrounded,” she said. “And no one has helped us get out of this place.”

In an emailed statement, Sasol spokesperson Sarah Hughes said that “Sasol is proud of our engagement with our neighbors in Mossville and the positive impact it has had on many of its residents.” She added that the company’s property buyout stemmed from direct requests from Mossville residents and that the company offered owners more than the appraised value of their homes.

After driving along the facility’s perimeter for 10 minutes, the bus swung left. Peters said to Regan that all of this was still Sasol as they traveled along another fence. “Remember when you first started seeing it?”

Members of the Concerned Citizens of Mossville directed the driver to stop beside a white hut with a brown roof, which housed an air monitoring station operated by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

“That’s the monitor right in there,” Peters said, gesturing to the structure. “I want to make it clear that Sasol was not present when the monitor was installed here. It was not this large. But now that they are, it makes it appear that they have it placed this close.”

“So, this is the only monitor for the town?” Regan asked.

“Correct,” Peters nodded.

Kimberly Terrell, a staff scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, explained to Regan that the monitor does not meet the EPA’s standards. She explained that the monitor does not provide accurate information about pollution levels because it is not measuring the right things at right times.

Regan turned to address the small crowd that had gathered outside the hut. “Seeing it from the ground, and speaking with community members, it’s amazing that we have gotten to this point,” Regan stated. “And the question really is — for all of us as federal, state and local government officials — what are we going to do moving forward?”

As Regan spoke, a large flame danced behind a metal grate across the street, shooting plumes of smoke into the sky. Regan said that he had many questions and wanted to address them with the state of Louisiana as well as local elected officials. Given its history of not responding to their demands, he acknowledged that the communities had a right to be skeptical about the government. When pressed for details, he stated that he wanted his staff examine the possibility of the agency having any enforcement authority to address the situation. Regan stated, “I don’t want to get ahead on my skis.” “But I can tell you I’m paying attention.”

Regan’s “Journey to Justice” tour, which the EPA said it had planned for months, was intended to signal a new era for the agency. The Trump administration had cut funding for the agency and eliminated hundreds of environmental protections over the past four years. Regan, who was once an EPA intern, compared his role to reversing a huge ship’s course. Though he cautioned that some policy changes would not happen overnight, he emphasized that his agency was ready to “set sail.”

“Some would say, ‘Well, you put yourself out there, and that means you have to move the ball forward and you will be held accountable,’” he said at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. “I am fully aware that we’ll be held accountable. That’s what we’re in public service for.”

John Walke, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former EPA lawyer, said that he welcomed Regan’s recent remarks as a “radical change in tone and focus that we hope will deliver actual changes in the real world.” But for the EPA to honor its administrator’s words, he continued, “the agency will have to act in a significantly different manner than it has to date. We are approaching the end of Biden’s first year in office, and the EPA’s policies regarding air toxics and cumulative risk are still essentially the same as the Trump administration’s.”

President Biden has vowed to make racial and environmental equity a centerpiece of his agenda. Within his first few days in office, he established two White House councils to address environmental injustices and directed the government to spend 40% of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities like the ones spotlighted by the EPA’s tour. The same day that Regan traveled through Texas — a state increasingly battered by climate-change-related disasters — the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better bill, which steers hundreds of billions of dollars toward environmental and climate justice.

During the administrator’s visit to Cancer Alley, Monique Harden, assistant director of law and policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, called for the EPA to pursue environmental justice by confronting civil rights violations. She said that while greater enforcement may reduce emissions from polluters, it will not do much to reduce the legal permissible concentrations of chemicals people living near industrial facilities must inhale each day. To safeguard the rights of Black residents and people with disabilities who disproportionately live in these heavily polluted areas, she said, “a suite of civil rights protections need to be brought to bear in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley and communities across the country where there’s environmental racism.”

The communities that Regan visited face a range of challenges, but residents of each conveyed to him the same sense of urgency. Peggy Anthony, who was on the tour with Regan, stated that this is an urgent situation. “This is an emergency situation,” said Peggy Anthony, who toured Mossville with Regan.

Walke and other environmental advocates said that the EPA already has the legal authority to immediately address the health risks experienced by residents on the tour and highlighted by ProPublica’s analysis. Walke stated that Regan’s visit to Cancer Alley was a result of his leadership and commitment. “The most important question, however, is when he gets back to Washington, will he exercise leadership to adopt cumulative risk practices and protect Americans from cancer risks greater than one in a million?”

“The stories have moved the ball forward in terms of what the public understands and what the EPA can’t ignore,” Cheuse said, referring to ProPublica’s reporting. “The measure of this administration’s success on environmental justice will be, in part, whether the EPA does right by the communities in St. John, St. James, Houston and everywhere he has visited on this tour.”

After the morning bus ride, Regan met privately with around a dozen members of the Concerned Citizens of Mossville inside a Baptist church. Carolyn Peters shared with her neighbors that she couldn’t stop smiling. She said, “I love how attentive and kind he is.”

Raphael Sias Jr., a home health aide who owns a home in Mossville, told the administrator about the book he’d been writing, titled “To Uncle Sam: Thanks For Nothing.” It’s “about how the government, who is Uncle Sam, is supposed to take care of us and protect us from things like this, and they’re not,” Sias Jr. said. This is a problem that is well-known around the globe, but the government has not stopped it. This should be their fight, not ours.”

Veteran environmental activist Christine Bennett, who grew up in Mossville, lost eight of her family members to illnesses that she attributes to “living in a chemical cocktail.” She’s traveled across the United States to speak about pollution.

4541 Her husband, Delma Bennett, said that Regan told them he was “taking this to heart and hearing everything we are saying.”

Her husband, Delma Bennett, said that Regan told them he was “taking this to heart and hearing everything we are saying.”

“But we’ve met with so many of them over the years,” Christine Bennett replied. “All we do is be heard.”

Tracy McZeal walks his bike in Westlake, Louisiana, looking toward the Sasol chemical plant and Mossville. Credit: Kathleen Flynn, special to ProPublica

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Max Blau contributed reporting.

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