Empowering Communities for Environmental Equity: EPA Mid-Atlantic Region 2024 Virtual Summit

May 16 , 10:00 am 4:00 pm EDT

The EPA Mid-Atlantic Summit is a one-day virtual event that is geared towards addressing environmental health topics relevant to the Mid-Atlantic Region. The summit is held annually and features an opening plenary with state environmental secretaries and concurrent sessions focused on various topics, including equity, environmental justice, sustainability, grant opportunities, and more. 

This week, frontline communities are counting an environmental justice win as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) takes action on toxic chemicals in Cancer Alley, a region of Southern Louisiana where residents face significantly elevated risks of cancer and other serious health problems living amid more than 200 industrial facilities along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. 

Signed by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the new rule sets tighter pollution limits on facilities that produce, emit, or store six hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals linked to plastic and petrochemical production: ethylene oxide, chloroprene, vinyl chloride, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and ethylene dichloride. The EPA estimates that cutting emissions of these chemicals will reduce cancer risks from breathing in toxic air and reduce smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 23,700 tons per year. The rule also requires regular and transparent air quality monitoring to better protect the primarily Black and low-income communities that face the disproportionate burden of pollution, accidents, and harmful health effects on the fencelines of industrial facilities across this region of Louisiana. 

The EPA’s move comes years after Administrator Regan’s visit to Cancer Alley in fall of 2021. During his visit, Regan met with members of frontline organizations Concerned Citizens of St. John and RISE St. James Louisiana, as well as other representatives of Louisiana fenceline communities, who shared their concerns and testimony, and called for serious government action to address the environmental injustices they face. In 2022, the EPA filed a complaint against synthetic rubber neoprene manufacturer Denka, in St. John the Baptist Parish, forcing the facility to cut its emissions of toxic chloroprene gas.

Administrator Regan cared. He is the first person who ever came down to see us about this. What he did today is what no one else tried to do. It’s the beginning of us being able to breathe clean air. He listened to citizens, not politicians, and that makes a difference, because our local politicians aren’t truthful about pollution. President Biden appointed the right person to lead the EPA, and I’m elated to have been a part of this announcement.

— Sharon Lavigne, RISE St. James Louisiana Founder and Executive Director

Administrator Regan came and he listened for the whole time. We had community members tell their stories, we took him to the Burton Lane neighborhood sandwiched between two industries, and he was able to see how these community members are affected. It was the first time we really felt heard and seen.

— Shamyra Lavigne Davey, RISE St. James Louisiana Executive Assistant

The EPA’s new rule for industrial facilities in Cancer Alley will require plants emitting toxic chloroprene gas to comply with tighter ambient air standards and monitoring requirements within 90 days. Loopholes that had allowed facilities to exceed chemical emissions on their air permits during shutdowns, startups, and natural disasters—such as hurricanes—have been closed. Facilities now planned to open in Cancer Alley, like Formosa Plastics’ plant in St. James Parish—which, if built, would release at least 7.7 tons of toxic ethylene oxide every year—are now subject to these new stricter air quality and monitoring rules in order to be approved.

While this new rule is a win, frontline experts stress this is just the start of addressing environmental injustice in Cancer Alley. For example, since the new rule’s air monitoring requirements for some of the newly regulated chemicals, such as ethylene oxide, will take several years to take effect, residents have effectively no publicly available monitoring data on the six chemicals targeted. This data can help residents make decisions about evacuation needs, and provide both the EPA and communities with evidence to hold polluters accountable. Meanwhile, residents must rely on community air monitoring—which industries continually oppose and their state government has not supported.

Petrochemicals and Plastics Continue to Contribute to Environmental Racism

In 2021, the United Nations human rights experts declared the growing corridor of petrochemical, plastic, and other industrial plants a serious case of environmental racism, and called on the U.S. Government to deliver environmental justice in communities all across America, starting with St. James Parish, and stressed corporations’ responsibility, suggesting they conduct environmental and human rights impact assessments as part of the due diligence process. Ultimately, the region’s pollution burden will only grow unless permitting of new facilities is stopped.

Take Action

Frontline communities in Cancer Alley and across the world are forced to fight for their lives—though they should not have to. Please help advance the case for environmental justice for all by telling President Biden to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical and plastic facilities. Better regulations on industry are important, but we can only end pollution and injustice if we stop them at the source.

December 11, 2023 , 7:00 pm 8:00 pm EST

Join us on Monday, Dec 11 at 7pm ET for a discussion on the dangers posed by the chemical vinyl chloride and its toll on the health of individuals and communities. Vinyl chloride is a critical raw material for the plastics industry, but it is highly toxic and is not found in any other products. Decades of experience and research have in fact demonstrated that it poses significant dangers to human health. Among workers it has been associated with high levels of angiosarcoma, a deadly and rare cancer of the liver, while in the wider population it is connected with brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia. Most recently, it grabbed headlines when a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, prompted the release of nearly 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride from five tankers, contaminating nearby land, air, and water. Area residents experienced rashes, headaches and nosebleeds among other ailments. The toxic properties of vinyl chloride are well known, and in 1974 the EPA banned the chemical as an aerosol propellant, but it has taken no regulatory action since then – until now. This fall, the agency is considering adding vinyl chloride to its list of chemicals to reassess for a ban or restriction due to toxicity.

Header image: Exxon Mobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, seen from the top of the Louisiana State Capitol. By WClarke (Wikimedia Commons)

An investigation of Louisiana State departments’ roles in perpetuating environmental injustices in a highly industrialized area along the lower Mississippi River, dubbed “Cancer Alley,” has been abruptly closed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

For those living on the frontlines of dangerous and deadly plastics, fossil fuel, and other industrial facilities and infrastructure, the move has been seen as a setback to their efforts to address systemic racism in the region and elsewhere in the state. The end of the investigation, which was sparked by official complaints filed on behalf of impacted communities, could also undermine the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing environmental injustices across the country.

We are very disheartened that EPA has decided to halt its investigation without making findings or addressing our concerns. EPA agreed that what’s happening to us is unfair. We thought the Administration would protect us, but no one wants to stand up to these companies. We are suffering, we are dying, and this makes us feel like our lives don’t matter. That’s a hard thing to deal with.

— Mary Hampton, President of Concerned Citizens of St. John, as told to Earthjustice

I feel like we were put on the back burner.

– Sharon Lavigne, environmental justice leader and Founder of RISE St. James, as told to The Washington Post

Louisiana Continues to Prioritize Profits Over People

Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. By Erica Cirino

In October 2022, the EPA launched its investigation and sent a letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Public Health calling for research on the health impacts faced by local residents from Denka Performance Elastomer’s neoprene factory in St. John the Baptist Parish and Formosa Plastics’ proposed facility in St. James Parish after finding evidence of racial discrimination.

The EPA’s short-lived investigation had marked a rare show of attention to the need to enforce against “disparate impact” of the disproportionate placement of hazardous industries and pollution in underserved communities. This progress was undermined when it closed its investigation after being sued by the state of Louisiana in a federal lawsuit filed in May by the state’s Attorney General Jeff Landry (R). The lawsuit alleges the EPA has violated aspects of the Constitution, Clean Air Act, and Civil rights Act of 1964, and effectively challenges the agency’s structure and authority, particularly in relation to its ability to regulate businesses and industries that drive major environmental injustices.

In closing its investigation into Louisiana’s role in perpetuating environmental social injustices, the EPA has taken a serious step backward, particularly in light of the Biden administration’s promises to address such discrimination. Frontline communities have for too long been fighting for their lives as industrial developments have colonized and polluted their neighborhoods, and this investigation could have made a positive impact on the lives of those harmed by environmental injustices. We have just witnessed the EPA cave to the pressures of profit-hungry, industry-friendly politics and unjust status quo systems.

– Erica Cirino, PPC Communications Manager and author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s legal challenges to the EPA come after two Supreme Court rulings in the last year that curb the federal agency’s abilities to regulate protected wetlands and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And Louisiana’s oil-and-gas friendly regulatory environment has led to fast-tracking permitting and operation of dangerous facilities—further imperiling federal efforts to address environmental injustices.

Threat of Environmental Injustice Grows

A glimpse of the petrochemical landscape along the Mississippi River in Southeastern Louisiana. By Erica Cirino

In Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land along both banks of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Black communities are among the most likely to face the worst health impacts and other dangers, such as fires and explosions, that come along with the unjust placement of industrial facilities. The EPA had pointed out this disparity, and evidence of racial discrimination, in its letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Public Health.

Those affected by environmental injustice point out its roots in the region’s longstanding systemic racism, which stems from the days of plantation slavery and continues as industries exploit Black communities today. In the grimly named Cancer Alley, where industrial pollution of air, water, soils, and human bodies is extremely high, cancers are indeed extremely common. Residents also face asthma, autoimmune diseases, headaches, rapid heartbeat, respiratory diseases, and many other serious ailments that diminish both lifespan and quality of life. 

In 2021, the United Nations human rights experts declared that “federal environmental regulations have failed to protect people residing in ‘Cancer Alley’” and called for action to end the systemic racism which drives continued harm in the region. In addition to Black communities, low-income, rural, Indigenous, and People of Color communities across the U.S. are also most likely to face environmental injustices that threaten their health, lives, and overall well-being.

Take Action

Despite this major setback on what could have been a significant step forward, frontline communities in Louisiana—and across the U.S.—will continue to advocate and act for their protection.

Together let’s move forward to a world free of pollution and injustice. You can help frontline communities by taking action to tell President Biden and officials to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical facilities. Additionally, you can demand that JPMorgan Chase—a major funder for plastic and petrochemical projects—denounces, divests, and defunds Formosa Plastics’ proposed plastics and petrochemical mega-factory in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

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Today, the White House announced a new Executive Order to Revitalize Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, which includes “new steps to combat plastic pollution in communities.” According to the Fact Sheet, the new steps include the following:

  • A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency draft National Strategy on Preventing Plastic Pollution, intended to “combat the disparate impacts on communities affected by plastic from production to waste.”
  • A new White House Interagency Policy Committee (IPC) on Plastic Pollution and a Circular Economy, which “will coordinate federal efforts on plastic pollution, prioritizing public health, economic development, and equity to ensure that the benefits of acting on plastic pollution – including jobs, minimized exposure to harmful chemicals, and clean communities – are available to all.”

Plastic Pollution Coalition applauds the Biden-Harris Administration’s recognition that plastic pollution is an environmental and social justice issue that disproportionately impacts Black, Brown, and Indigenous (BIPOC), and rural and low-income communities. The details of the plans will be key, as will the timeline for implementation.

When it comes to plastic pollution, there is no “away.” For far too long, the fossil fuel industry has promoted plastic as disposable and treated communities as sacrifice zones. It’s time communities get the government protection from industry they deserve, and that the right to clean air, water, and soil is restored for everyone. This Earth Day, it is important to remember that we have just one planet to care for and share, and we are all in this together.

– Julia Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Plastic Pollution Coalition
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Updated: October 3, 2023

A major federal complaint, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (on behalf of the EPA) on February 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, brings to light how a neoprene plastic factory in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, is allegedly violating the Clean Air Act. Run by Denka Performance Elastomer since 2015 and previously by DuPont, the “Pontchartrain Works” facility, as it is known, presents an “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and welfare due to the cancer risks from Denka’s chloroprene emissions,” according to the official complaint. Denka’s facility is the only such plant emitting toxic chloroprene in the United States.

The federal complaint states that air monitoring around Denka’s facility have consistently shown high levels of chloroprene in the air—up to 14 times what’s considered a safe lifetime limit. According to the DOJ, the goal of the complaint is to compel Denka to significantly cut its chloroprene emissions for the safety and health of surrounding communities. The complaint also calls on DuPont, which rents the land out to Denka, to hold the polluter accountable for cutting emissions. 

The EPA in 2010 concluded in a peer-reviewed assessment that chloroprene is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” and that “childhood may represent a potentially susceptible lifestage to chloroprene toxicity.” This is especially concerning given the close proximity of Fifth Ward Elementary School, and other schools, to Denka’s polluting facility. 

Residents of Reserve and LaPlace, in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, have long spoken out against the neoprene facility situated between both communities in predominantly Black neighborhoods that has been emitting toxic chloroprene gas and other pollutants since 1968. Despite community concerns and actions, including recent class-action lawsuits, requests for Louisiana State agencies to take action, and evidence that they carry the highest risk of cancer in the country (at least 50 times the national average for residents nearest the facility), as well as international attention on environmental injustice in southern Louisiana, and ongoing U.S. EPA air monitoring and visits to the facility producing worrying findings on toxic emissions and worker safety, the plant has continued to operate.

In June the EPA abruptly closed the investigation and its discussions with LDEQ, without resolution. According to a WWNO and WRKF investigation, documents and emails show that the two agencies had negotiated a 43-page agreement that would have helped prevent communities further environmental injustices by significantly changing Louisiana’s air pollution permitting process.

We’d been out here fighting so hard for so long, it felt good to have someone shouldering the burden with us, and it felt good to not be gaslit. After all of that fighting, they just abandoned us.

— Joy Banner, Co-Founder of The Descendants Project and St. John the Baptist Parish resident, told WNNO in the weeks following the case’s closure

To better understand the full impacts of environmental injustice on the Reserve and La Place communities, we encourage you to listen to and watch community testimony, which has been collected and shared by Concerned Citizens of St. John. This group has brought much attention to the environmental racism inherent in the unjust placement of industry in their communities and others like it. Environmental racism is a form of violence against Black people, and other underserved groups, and in St. John the Baptist Parish is inherently linked to the inhuman legacy of slavery in the United States.

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