By Matthew Daly
The Associated Press
RESERVE, LA. » Michael Coleman’s house is the last one standing on his tiny street, squeezed between a sprawling oil refinery whose sounds and smells keep him up at night and a massive grain elevator that covers his pickup in dust and, he says, exacerbates his breathing problems.
Coleman, 65, points to the billowing smokestacks just outside his backyard. “Oh, when the plants came in, they built right on top of us,” he said. “We was surrounded by sugarcane, and now we’re surrounded by (industrial) plants.”
The oil company offered Coleman a buyout, but he rejected it. “I’m waiting for a fair shake,” he said in an interview on the front steps of the home he has lived in for more than 50 years. In the meantime, he copes with high blood pressure, thyroid problems and other health issues that he attributes to decades of pollution from his industrial neighbors, a Marathon Petroleum refinery and a Cargill grain depot.
St. John the Baptist Parish, where Coleman lives, is part of an 85-mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge officially known as the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, but more commonly called Cancer Alley. The region contains several hot spots where cancer risks are far above levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Coleman and other area residents on a five-day “Journey to Justice” tour that highlighted low-income, mostly minority communities adversely affected by decades of industrial pollution.
A Toxics Release Inventory prepared by the EPA shows minority groups make up 56% of those living near toxic sites such as refineries, landfills and chemical plants. Negative effects include chronic health problems such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension.
“I’m able to put faces and names with this term that we call environmental justice,” Regan said at a news conference outside Coleman’s home, where a blue tarp covers roof damage from Hurricane Ida.
“This is what we are talking about when we talk about ‘fence-line communities’ — those communities who have been disproportionately impacted by pollution and are having to live in these conditions,” Regan said, gesturing to the grain elevator in front of him and refinery behind. A railroad track runs just outside the property with the Mississippi River a few blocks down.
In nearby St. James, Regan met with Brenda Bryant, whose neighborhood is surrounded by oil storage tanks and a hulking refinery.
“We are actually sandwiched in. And I’m the meat,” Bryant told Regan, who assured her that she and others he met with “will have a seat at the table” as officials develop solutions for long-ignored communities.
A former environmental regulator in his native North Carolina, Regan has made environmental justice a top priority since taking over as EPA chief in March.
As the first Black man to lead the agency, the issue “is really personal for me, as well as professional,’‘ Regan said.
“As I look at many of the folks in these communities, they look just like me. They look just like my son, and it’s really tough to see them question the quality of their drinking water,’‘ he said.
Historically marginalized communities such as St. John and St. James, along with cities such as New Orleans, Houston and Jackson, Miss., will benefit from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law signed by President Joe Biden, Regan said. The law includes $55 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure, while a sweeping climate and social policy bill pending in the Senate would pump more than twice that amount into EPA programs to clean up the environment and address water and environmental justice issues.
Legislation can help, but Regan acknowledged that decades of neglect and widespread health problems among mostly Black and brown communities won’t be solved overnight. Loose permitting requirements for industrial sites, along with exclusionary zoning laws and housing practices, have long funneled racial and ethnic minorities into areas near toxic pollutants at rates far higher than the overall population.
At a congressional hearing in October, oil company executives sidestepped questions about whether refineries and other facilities are more likely to be in low-income and minority communities.
“We’ve got oil refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast, and we’re very proud to be community members there,” Shell Oil President Gretchen Watkins told Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.
“Your profit-driven choices threaten my life, the lives of my family, my neighbors and our communities every single day,” Bush responded.
In Louisiana a recent inspector general’s report faulted the EPA for failing to protect St. John, St. James and other parishes from chloroprene and ethylene oxide, toxic chemicals used in industrial processes.
“If EPA, the federal government, the state government, the local governments had been doing things correctly, we wouldn’t be here, Regan said in St. John. “There’s obviously a problem with the way we have implemented our laws. And quite frankly, there may be a problem with existing law.”
Environmental injustice is not limited to the South, and Regan has visited hardhit areas in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, as well as brownfields and tribal areas in North Dakota.
“For the first time we’re not questioning whether or not these environmental injustices exist,” he said. “We are actually acknowledging that they do. We need to give these individuals a voice and talk about what we’re going to do to solve these problems.”
More immediately, Regan promised that the EPA will use its enforcement power to ensure a former DuPont petrochemical plant near Coleman’s home complies with federal regulations on emissions of chloroprene and other harmful chemicals.
The facility is now owned by Japanese conglomerate Denka.