Louisiana’s Readiness for Tighter Regulations Eclipsed by EPA’s Investigation Withdrawal

by Joshua Brown
EPA Cancer Alley Investigation

For over a year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) probed into allegations that Louisiana’s state officials had engaged in racial discrimination against African American communities by exposing them to elevated cancer risks. The EPA, citing preliminary findings, pressed for the state to enhance its regulatory oversight concerning emissions from industrial facilities.

An early version of a pact shared by The Big Big News reveals that Louisiana’s health authorities were receptive to the idea of implementing more stringent controls. Part of this included assessing the potential impact of new industrial projects on predominantly Black communities.

However, before concrete commitments were secured, the federal authorities ceased their investigation in June. Advocates view this as a lost chance to better the conditions for residents of the heavily industrialized region known as “Cancer Alley.”

Experts suggest that the Biden administration, faced with judicial challenges to its investigative authority, might have backed away to avoid setting a precedent that could curtail its powers. Meanwhile, community activists are concerned that abandoning the probe has undermined efforts to combat environmental racism.

In a detailed examination of the tentative agreement, which Louisiana health officials had revised and returned to the EPA by late May, Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official, lamented the loss of progress.

This cessation of the investigation is especially disheartening to those who had hoped for stronger regulations, especially since Louisiana has now elected Jeff Landry—a Republican known for his opposition to the EPA’s inquiry—as governor.

The EPA’s civil rights investigation, initiated after appeals from environmental organizations in 2022, concentrated on the actions of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health. These departments are responsible for industrial permitting and health risk communication, respectively.

Preliminary findings by the EPA indicated that the state permitted a polymer plant owned by Denka to operate at levels that posed a significant cancer risk to nearby residents, including children attending a school in close proximity to the plant. State health officials were also accused of failing to adequately notify the public about these risks.

In the EPA’s efforts to broker an agreement that would reform how the state reviews air pollution emissions, it was revealed that health authorities were inclined to examine how additional pollution sources could exacerbate the dangers around existing industrial areas and how this would disproportionately affect various racial and socioeconomic groups.

Yet, health officials also sought to excise critical aspects of the EPA’s proposals, striving for autonomous decision-making power regarding the need for analyses suggested by the EPA, which was deemed problematic by Earthjustice attorney Deena Tumeh, given the existing allegations of negligence.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s visit to the region, alongside community leaders, underscored the gravity of the situation, yet the recent withdrawal from the investigation has left community activists like Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James feeling betrayed.

Although the EPA refrained from discussing specifics due to ongoing legal proceedings, it affirmed its commitment to environmental justice and to ameliorating community health conditions.

The EPA has taken steps to mitigate the risks from the Denka facility, reaching agreements to reduce emissions, suing the company over cancer risks, and proposing new regulations to limit pollutants like chloroprene.

Despite these actions and the Biden administration’s emphasis on environmental justice, the withdrawal from the Louisiana case suggests a potentially cautious approach from the agency when faced with assertive legal opposition.

There’s no specific legal mandate focused on environmental justice, which complicates the EPA’s enforcement capabilities. The agency’s endeavors to bolster its focus on environmental justice are, according to environmental lawyer Stacey Sublett Halliday, undergoing a challenging growth phase.

The comprehensive environmental coverage by The Big Big News, including the issues of water and environmental policy, is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, yet editorial independence is maintained by The Big Big News. For more environmental reporting, visit the designated website.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about EPA Cancer Alley Investigation

What was the EPA investigating in Louisiana?

The EPA was investigating allegations of racial discrimination against Black residents due to increased cancer risks posed by air pollution from industrial plants in Louisiana, particularly in a region known as “Cancer Alley.”

Why did the EPA drop its investigation into Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”?

The EPA dropped its investigation due to concerns about the potential loss of its investigative power amidst legal challenges, even though preliminary evidence suggested discrimination.

What was the expected outcome of the EPA’s investigation in Louisiana?

The investigation aimed to compel Louisiana to agree to stricter oversight of industrial air pollution, with the hope of reducing health risks to residents, especially in predominantly Black communities.

How did Louisiana officials react to the EPA’s proposed oversight?

Louisiana health officials seemed open to the idea of stricter oversight and were willing to consider how new industrial projects could further harm Black residents, but they also proposed removing significant parts of the EPA’s proposal, seeking more autonomous power in the decision-making process.

What was the response from the community to the EPA’s withdrawal?

Community activists, including Sharon Lavigne from Rise St. James, felt let down, believing that the withdrawal was a missed opportunity to enact meaningful change and address environmental discrimination.

How has the Biden administration prioritized environmental justice?

The Biden administration has emphasized environmental justice, creating a dedicated office for such cases and ensuring federal climate investments benefit disadvantaged communities. However, the decision to drop the Louisiana case raises questions about the administration’s approach under legal pressure.

More about EPA Cancer Alley Investigation

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Mike Anderson November 3, 2023 - 9:06 am

can’t believe the EPA just dropped the ball on this, those folks in Cancer Alley needed their support, this is just another letdown.

Joe_the_Enviro November 3, 2023 - 1:16 pm

it’s a sad day for environmental justice Biden admin talks big on EJ but actions speak louder than words huh.

RachelM November 3, 2023 - 2:25 pm

Disapointed but not surprised that the state officials wanted more control even after the EPA found evidence of discrimination, what’s new?

SarahB November 3, 2023 - 8:51 pm

Its just like, what are they even there for if not to help people in need? this is exactly why we can’t trust the government to look out for us.

Tommy76 November 4, 2023 - 3:41 am

anyone else think that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this story? wait until the courts have their say, that lawsuit could change things.


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