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EPA investigation into Louisiana agencies yields evidence of racial discrimination

EPA Tour.jpg
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick/Gulf States Newsroom
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St. John the Baptist residents Michael Coleman and Robert Taylor and Deep South Center for Environmental Justice Executive Director Dr. Beverly Wright listen to EPA Administrator Michael Regan talk to the press about what he’s learned on his “Journey to Justice” tour.

The conduct of two Louisiana agencies might have harmed Black residents living in the state’s industrial corridor, according to a letter from federal environmental regulators Wednesday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened a civil rights investigation into Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health in April over three complaints of racial discrimination when controlling air pollution and considering permits.

In the letter, the EPA officials said the agency has found significant evidence that the actions – and inactions – of the state departments continue to result in “disparate adverse impacts” on Black residents living in a heavily-industrialized, 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River, nicknamed Cancer Alley.

“The failure to seek out, consider or analyze available information and data about health risks appears to have formed the basis for actions and/or inactions by both LDEQ and LDH that may be subjecting Black residents of Louisiana to adverse disparate impacts,” concluded Lilian Dorka, the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for external civil rights.

The complaints called LDEQ’s air pollution control and permitting programs discriminatory against Black residents. The complaints were filed by local residents in the parishes alongside several environmental groups.

Two centered on the health risk associated with the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in Reserve, while the other is more sweeping. It alleged flaws in the agency’s statewide permitting process that disproportionately subject Black residents to environmental hazards.


To read the full letter from the EPA, click here to view the PDF.


The groups complained that the state lacks a procedure to identify the impacts of air pollution based on race, using a proposed plastics complex in St. James Parish as an example.

The complaints also alleged that the state health department failed to inform both residents and LDEQ of the risks posed by the Denka plant’s high emissions of a likely carcinogen known as chloroprene.

The EPA’s robust, 56-page letter stopped short of finding the state departments in violation of federal law. But it noted several concerns about air monitoring data, permits and department responses to concerns following its initial review of the complaints.

What federal regulators found

Near the Denka plant, the EPA made clear that efforts by the LDEQ and the company to substantially lower chloroprene emissions haven’t been enough to meet federal recommendations.

“There is no question, however, that elevated cancer risk for residents of all ages and school children still exists and has existed as a result of breathing air polluted with chloroprene and that this risk has impacted and currently impacts Black residents disproportionately,” wrote Dorka.

As a result, she wrote that the EPA has “significant concerns” that residents and students have faced discrimination under LDEQ’s implementation of its pollution control program.

Figure 1:  Denka Modeled Average Annual Chloroprene Concentrations (2020) EPA map
A graphic created by the Environmental Protection Agency models the average annual exposure to chloroprene of areas in St. John the Baptist Parish. Areas exposed to greater than .2 micrograms face an unacceptable level of elevated cancer risk. Federal regulators prefer for exposure levels to sit around .02 micrograms, or the pale yellow color shown on the map.

The federal officials also cited concerns about the state agency and LDEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown’s repeated mischaracterization of risk posed by levels of chloroprene exposure that exceeded the EPA’s guidelines during meetings in 2018.

“Dr. Brown’s mischaracterizing the category of carcinogen on behalf of LDEQ had the potential to confuse and mislead, even if that was not LDEQ’s intention,” Dorka wrote.

The EPA also found flaws in the state health department’s research into residents’ chloroprene exposure and the state staff’s communication of results to the community and environmental agency. Dorka’s team looked at several reports from the state between 2017 and 2021, finding problems with each of them.

For example, Dorka deemed a 2017 report unreliable after omitting key information ranging from the report’s author to using outdated information on the health risks associated with chloroprene.

EJ for all tour river parish st john denka
Halle Parker
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WWNO
Participants on a "Toxic Tour" promoting Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva's proposed "Environmental Justice for All Act" stop at Denka Performance Elastomer, a chemical plant in Reserve, La. on June 18, 2022.

Another study in 2018 informed the local school board that moving children from the elementary school neighboring plant to another campus 1.5 miles away would "not greatly decrease" risks associated with exposure to chloroprene.

Dorka said that report didn’t acknowledge the students’ “unacceptably high cancer risks” and limited its scope to omit how moving students to locations even farther from Denka would have lowered exposure.

“The unsupported conclusions and failure to consider relevant data, some of which are contradictory to LDH’s conclusions, potentially misinformed the School Board’s analysis of the benefits of relocating the school children,” Dorka wrote.

The state department also failed to implement recommendations from its own studies in the community, including its commitment to educating local health providers about the impacts of the carcinogen.

The letter also pointed to how the departments responded to the filed complaints, in which LDEQ stated its belief that “its environmental justice best practices are adequate, are based on years of independent study, and follow EPA guidance.”

But the EPA argued in the letter that LDEQ failed to provide evidence of any published policies or guidance for how it analyzes whether pollution would disproportionately impact marginalized residents.

“None of these statements is a written policy or procedure, much less a best practice that provides guidance to LDEQ staff on when and how to conduct either an (environmental justice) analysis or an appropriate analysis to evaluate Title VI compliance,” Dorka said.

The letter also clarified that following environmental laws isn’t enough to ensure that state decisions aren’t discriminatory.

What comes next?

The letter of concern aimed to lay out problems that the federal agency hopes to work with the state to resolve through an informal agreement process. Both agencies have agreed to that process, known as an Informal Resolution Agreement.

In its proposed recommendations, the EPA said the agencies should conduct several cumulative impact analyses once an agreement is set. Those analyses would take a closer look at the effect of three sources of air pollution: the Denka plant, which is up for permit renewal, the proposed plastics complex in St. James and the next major project proposed in the industrial corridor.

Dorka wrote the analyses should account for the cumulative exposure to multiple pollutants at once, social factors for residents, community input, lifelong effects of infant exposure and ways to avoid negative health impacts.

The EPA also called for more air monitoring near the Denka plant, the development of a process to identify harmful health impacts and who’s affected, and the establishment of air permit limits in the industrial corridor.

Lawyers behind the complaints hope to see those terms broaden as negotiations move forward to protect residents in other parts of the state who also deal with pollution from heavy industry, such as Lake Charles and Shreveport.

LDEQ and health department spokespeople said they’re committed to resolving any issues and are fully cooperating.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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