In ‘groundbreaking’ decision, EPA to investigate 2 state agencies over discrimination claims

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The Environmental Protection Agency will probe two state agencies over their handling of air pollution from the Denka Performance Elastomers plant (pictured) in St. John the Baptist Parish.
Travis Lux

Federal officials will open investigations into complaints of racial discrimination against two of Louisiana’s agencies over the handling of air pollution and permits in St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes.

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency notified the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health that the federal agency accepted three complaints filed by local residents and several environmental groups in late January.

Two centered around ongoing problems with air pollution from an industrial plant in St. John, and the other argued that systemic racism was present in permitting decisions in St. James Parish last August.

In its initial review, the EPA found that the issue fell under the agency’s jurisdiction, as both state entities received federal funding and met the requirement for timeliness. The decision wasn’t based on the merits of the complaints, according to the April 6 notice.

Nevertheless, it’s one of the few – if not only – Title VI complaints to be investigated in Louisiana, and Sierra Club environmental justice organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley called the decision “groundbreaking.”

The federal probe comes after EPA Administrator Michael Regan committed to strengthening its enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program receiving federal money. Prior to his appointment, Title VI complaints to EPA have been met with extreme delays, often going unprocessed and creating a monstrous backlog.

“I’ve been involved with environmental issues in Louisiana since 1983. There’s never been a Title VI complaint, that I know of, accepted and acted upon by EPA,” Malek-Wiley said. “Through the years, Title VI (complaints) were put in the closet, and stayed there. No one took action on them.”

For the Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office will investigate whether the methods used in its air pollution control program have the intent or effect of subjecting people to racial discrimination, including their actions related to emissions from the Denka plant and the decision to grant 14 air permits for the Formosa Plastics industrial complex planned in St. James.

That plastics complex would be among the largest in the world, doubling toxic air emissions. Currently, the project is delayed as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drafts an environmental impact statement.

“We believe that LDEQ’s permit process, prescribed by state law, is impartial and unbiased. LDEQ handles all issues with a fair and equitable approach. LDEQ will work with EPA to resolve this matter,” said Greg Langley, the Department of Environmental Quality’s press secretary.

The EPA office will also determine whether the Department of Health has failed in both providing St. John residents with information about health threats associated with Denka and other sources of air pollution and making recommendations for measures to prevent or reduce exposure. Federal officials will check whether the state agencies have procedures in place to ensure they provide meaningful access to its services and actions.

“We take these concerns very seriously. We have received the complaint in full from EPA and are reviewing it closely,” said Stephen Russo, the state Department of Health’s executive counsel, in a statement.

St. John residents like Robert Taylor — who founded the Concerned Citizens of St. John, one of the complainants — have fought for fewer emissions from the Denka plant since 2016.

That was when they learned that the area suffered from cancer risks far higher than the rest of the country due to chloroprene inhalation from the plant, including children sent to learn at Fifth Ward Elementary School just a half mile away from Denka. That school is 93% minority, with mostly Black students. Taylor and most of the residents closest to the plant are also Black.

A satellite image of the Denka Performance Elastomers Plant in Reserve, Louisiana.

“They are busing Black children from all over the parish into that school, and this plant is poisoning them,” Taylor said. “When are they going to do something?”

In response, state Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Brown said some critics were “fear mongering” at a 2016 Parish Council meeting, stating the emissions weren’t a threat. He later apologized for using the term.

The Department of Environmental Quality eventually worked out an agreement for Denka to lower emissions by 85%. However, that reduction hasn’t brought it down to the level the EPA recommends for safety. Denka has challenged the federal threshold and how the risk of chloroprene is assessed while continuing to emit, but the EPA reaffirmed its risk estimates last month.

Since Regan’s visit, the EPA has also expanded monitoring at the plant, Taylor said, placing 18 monitors around Denka and taking readings all day, every day. But monitoring hasn’t changed the emissions, he said, and true accountability will take recognition of who’s bearing the burden.

“I'm hoping that they put somebody in the DEQ that is really there to represent and protect the people,” Taylor said. “And will hold these people accountable for their horrible behavior and activity.”

The two state agencies can enter resolution discussions with the EPA, otherwise the federal agency will conduct its investigation within 180 days. If found in violation, the EPA would lay out steps for the state to comply with regulations or risk losing federal funding.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct a response given by a DEQ official during a 2016 St. John Parish Council meeting.

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Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk.