EPA Administrator Michael Regan pledged to take multiple concrete actions to fight environmental injustice, including unannounced inspections of facilities, bolstering air monitoring capacity and strengthening emissions standards for ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical.
Two months after his visit to Southern communities plagued with pollution problems, Regan told reporters on a call last night that his “Journey to Justice” tour directly influenced his decisions to improve communities through national initiatives and localized actions (Greenwire, Nov. 23, 2021).
“These actions are not actions that EPA simply dreamed up,” Regan said, “but are in response to what we heard from the community during the Journey to Justice tour and what we’ve heard from them since that tour.”
Fighting environmental hazards in minority and low-income neighborhoods has been a pillar of the Biden administration, and Regan — the first Black man to lead EPA — often speaks about the need to connect with communities that harbor distrust of the U.S. government.
“I took on this role to do things differently, and so did my team,” he said.
Since he assumed the role as administrator, Regan has not shied away from writing critical letters directly to company CEOs claiming their operations pose health risks in minority communities. For example, he wrote earlier this week to the president of Denka Corp., which has a neoprene manufacturing plant at Louisiana’s Pontchartrain Works site in LaPlace, St. John the Baptist Parish.
Regan has, however, so far shied away from taking a publicly hard stance against state environmental departments. Rather, he has emphasized their strong partnerships, promising to step in and override their authority if need be.
That could be warranted — at least according to testimony provided by Robert Taylor, founder of Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, who joined Regan and other leaders on the call last night. He complained that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had dismissed his concerns about a chemical plant 1,500 feet from a school.
“We have been so downtrodden and beaten down,” he told reporters. “And now we finally [have] an administration and an administrator who came in to the community and dealt with the people.”
Last week, Taylor’s group and the Sierra Club petitioned EPA to undertake a civil rights investigation of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Health over allegations of racial discrimination in subjecting parish residents to disproportionate amounts of pollution. In their complaint, the two groups asked EPA to consider cutting off some federal funding to the state if the discrimination continues. EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office is reviewing the complaint to determine whether “it’s appropriate for investigation,” agency spokesperson Tim Carroll said in an email this morning.
Last fall, the Concerned Citizens group also filed a lawsuit against EPA alleging that the agency is in some instances far behind a Clean Air Act timetable for updating emissions standards applicable to local industries. While court papers indicate that settlement talks are underway, Carroll declined to comment on pending litigation.
The new announcements come as some national environmental justice leaders have grown impatient with the White House’s progress on the issue (Greenwire, Jan. 18).
For his part, Regan asserted the new actions are “just the beginning.”
For one, Regan said he directed his enforcement agents to aggressively use their authority to conduct unannounced inspections of suspected polluters — a tool already at the agency’s disposal but one that has not been used in recent years.
“We’re going to keep these facilities on their toes, so they are doing their due diligence all the time, not just when there is a planned EPA inspection,” he said. “When a facility is found to be noncompliant, we will use all available tools to hold them accountable.”
He said the enforcement office has programs in place to detect “abnormalities” and “potential for violations.”
Asked why the agency hadn’t pursued such inspections before, Regan said the metrics in place to measure unannounced inspections weren’t at satisfactory levels.
He added that the pandemic “created a pause in terms of inspection levels.” But those things have been resolved and a plan is in place to “amp up our aggressiveness.”
The effort, however, could prove difficult given that shortages of criminal investigators and other agents have long strained the office (Greenwire, Jan. 25).
Recent data obtained by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility showed that criminal referrals to the Department of Justice dropped by a third last fiscal year.
The agency acknowledged the staffing challenge but asserted it is a priority.
Regan declined to say how many unannounced inspections would take place.
While he also heralded $600,000 in added funding to improve mobile air quality monitoring in the area, it is not clear how far that money will go.
According to EPA’s latest air trends report released last year, the agency lacks the monitoring data to know whether ambient air concentrations of ethylene oxide and other hazardous pollutants are increasing or decreasing in the slice of southeastern
Louisiana that spans St. John the Baptist Parish and other parts of the region often dubbed “Cancer Alley.”
Monitoring gaps are a nationwide problem, according to the Government Accountability Office. While Regan has touted $50 million in monitoring funds approved by Congress last year as part of a Covid-19 relief package, a senior EPA air office staffer cautioned last summer that the competitively awarded portion of those funds is one-time only. State agencies and other applicants interested in getting a grant to install a permanent air pollution monitor need to plan for “how they’re going to sustain that monitor after that funding ends,” the staffer, Chet Wayland, told an agency advisory committee.
More definitively, Regan yesterday said EPA intends to stick with its 2016 finding that ethylene oxide, a hazardous pollutant widely used in the chemical and medical equipment sterilization industries, is much more carcinogenic than previously thought. In a formal acknowledgment of that decision, the agency today said it’s proposing to use that finding in reconsidering the emissions standards for organic chemical manufacturing plants that release ethylene oxide.
Regan’s decision was unsurprising, given that EPA regional officials had said last year that they were continuing to rely on the 2016 risk value. But it likely slams the door on any chance the Biden administration will fulfill the American Chemistry Council’s request to revise it.
The industry trade group contends that the 2016 value seriously overstates ethylene oxide’s risks. In an email, a spokesperson this morning said the group will need to review EPA’s explanation for its decision, but reiterated concerns over the validity of the current value and said that industrial emissions of the compound have dropped by more than 80 percent since 2002.
But Regan’s decision was welcomed by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who co-chairs the Congressional Ethylene Oxide Task Force.
Upholding the 2016 assessment has been one of the task force’s top priorities, Schneider said in a statement, “Today we applaud the EPA for listening and acting to protect public health.”