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More than 50 green groups accuse EPA of failing to protect clean water, plan lawsuit

Industry smokestacks, behind a Little League field in Port Neches, Texas. The Environmental Integrity Project found that Indorama Ventures Oxides Port Neches, located next door to this facility, releases water pollution into the Neches River Tidal.
La’Shance Perry
The Lens
Industry smokestacks, behind a Little League field in Port Neches, Texas. The Environmental Integrity Project found that Indorama Ventures Oxides Port Neches, located next door to this facility, releases water pollution into the Neches River Tidal.

Michael Regan cannot catch a break from Louisianans.

Last month, as Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tightened pollution controls in the state, he drew fire.

Congressman Clay Higgins (R-La.), an industry proponent, said Regan was doing too much, calling Regan an “EPA criminal” in an April 8 post on X, and saying that he should be arrested if he visited Louisiana.

This week, environmentalists contend that Regan is falling short at his job.

On Thursday, a handful of environmental groups notified the EPA of its intent to sue the agency and Regan in his capacity as head of the agency.

The Environmental Integrity Project, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity are poised to sue the EPA over its failure to perform duties required by the Clean Water Act, according to the notice, which highlights the EPA’s failure to submit a required biennial state water-quality report and analysis to Congress.

The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to submit an analysis every two years, but the last time the EPA filed such a report with Congress was in 2017.

In a parallel effort, more than 50 environmental groups, including three from Louisiana — the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and Healthy Gulf — signed a letter on Thursday, pushing the EPA to issue the same, long-overdue water-quality report.

“Congress made biennial water quality reports from EPA mandatory for good reason – they are necessary for lawmakers to determine the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act,” said Kelly Hunter Foster, senior attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Guidelines for the release of wastewater from petrochemical and plastics plants are even more remiss. They haven’t been updated since 1993, 31 years ago.

That allows industries to release far more polllutants, without detection by the EPA. Or so the Environmental Integrity Project found, in an analysis of the wastewater-discharge data provided by 31 petrochemical and plastic plants nationwide.

The analysis found that previous EPA reports underestimated the amount of water pollution released by plants.

In its examination, the Environmental Integrity Project focused on the discharge of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus within wastewater. These nutrients create perfect conditions for harmful algal blooms, which can cause oxygen-depleted zones that suffocate fish and other aquatic life downstream.

The environmentalists involved felt like the harm was too great to continue unchecked.

“The EPA has obscured essential information about waterway pollution and aquatic ecosystem health for seven years, leaving us no choice but to launch this lawsuit,” said Hannah Connor, deputy director of environmental health at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The majority of the plants studied are located in Louisiana and Texas. Three of the top five polluters are in Louisiana, while the remaining two are in Texas. Wastewater enters the Mississippi River from many of the plants, including Union Carbide Corporation and Dow Chemical – Plaquemine. Another plant, Westlake Lake Charles South, releases wastewater into the Calcasieu River, which has been badly polluted for decades.

The Environmental Integrity Project also questioned the contents of wastewater released from the world’s largest ammonia production facility, CF Industries’ Donaldsonville Nitrogen Complex, an hour west of New Orleans.

Though not included in the study, data from 2021 shows that the CF Industries fertilizer plant discharged into the Mississippi River more than 3.1 million pounds of total nitrogen, the wastewater equivalent of 25 municipal sewage-treatment plants.

Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James speaks at a protest of the Americas Energy Summit in New Orleans on Jan. 19.
La’Shance Perry
The Lens
Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James speaks at a protest of the Americas Energy Summit in New Orleans on Jan. 19.

Advocates say that the EPA’s oversight of wastewater plummeted nearly 25 years ago.

“EPA’s effluent limitation guidelines have been on life support since most of its staff and funds were transferred to other programs in 2000,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of EPA’s Office of Science and Technology. “Consequently, the discharge of industrial pollutants — posing serious risks to public health and the environment, including newly recognized pollutants such as PFAS — has continued unabated for decades.”

In their letter to the EPA, the more than 50 environmental organizations emphasized the urgency of completing the belated water-quality report. They cited research from the Environmental Integrity Project finding that about half of the rivers and lakes in the country are so polluted that they are unsuitable for fishing, swimming and other public uses that the Clean Water Act was enacted to protect.

Also, the organizations have asked the EPA to commit to a revision of its outdated pollution limits for industrial discharge, which often date back 50 or 60 years.

In 2019, they note, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered that the Clean Water Act be updated as technologies advance, to properly limit pollution discharges.

The court chastised the EPA for taking so long to update its guidelines for steam-electric power plants, whose guidelines were last updated “during the second year of President Reagan’s first term, the same year that saw the release of the first CD player, the Sony Watchman pocket television, and the Commodore 64 home computer. In other words, 1982.”

The wastewater discharge guidelines for those power plants were finally tightened in 2024.

Threats from Louisiana’s political powers

Last month, Rep. Higgins’ outburst came after the EPA announced a major regulatory change on April 9 to reduce toxic air pollution coming from more than 200 chemical plants across the U.S.

The new standards are intended to cut cancer-causing emissions for people living near petrochemical plants.

Higgins’ tweet called for Regan to be charged with extortion. “I’d charge him a count for every Louisiana employee he’s threatening. Send that arrogant prick to (the Louisiana State Penitentiary at) Angola for a few decades,” he wrote.

It seems as though the Louisiana employees he references are workers from the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in Reserve.

The new regulations target the plant’s heavy emissions of ethylene oxide and chloroprene, two cancer-causing chemicals that spew into the air surrounding Fifth Ward Elementary School, which sits adjacent to the Denka facility.

In response to Higgins’ post, Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James and a 2024 Time Influential Person of the Year, wrote an opinion piece in the Louisiana Illuminator, asking the Congressman why he responded to the new regulation with such hostility.

“Ever since Regan came to meet the members of RISE St. James Louisiana, Concerned Citizens of St. John and other community leaders during his 2021 Journey to Justice tour, he has worked hard to keep his promises to make life better for fenceline communities, especially those that continue to experience environmental racism,” she wrote.

Many fenceline community members in the river parishes felt relief after the EPA made its first amendment to strengthen air pollution guidelines in 30 years.

And now, water/pollution advocates await a response from Regan, said Meg Parish, senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project

“The Clean Water Act can’t live up to its promise,” she said, “if the EPA won’t report on polluted waterways, as required, or update its standards to keep pace with technology.”

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