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Shuttered EPA investigation could’ve brought 'meaningful reform' in Cancer Alley, documents show

After pledging to clean up Cancer Alley, the EPA issued a letter in Oct. 2022 detailing preliminary evidence of racial discrimination and noncompliance by the state.

Associated Press, Halle Parker


Published: 11:10 AM CDT September 6, 2023
Updated: 11:10 AM CDT September 6, 2023

As industrial plants have overtaken historic Black communities and burdened neighborhoods with toxic air pollution, environmental advocates and residents of Louisiana’s chemical corridor have spent decades calling for change.

So when the country’s top environmental regulator opened a high-profile civil rights investigation into Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality last year, it felt like a watershed moment.

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to exercise its oversight and evaluate whether LDEQ has granted permits for companies to build and pollute in a way that has caused disproportionate harm to Black communities. Ultimately, they found signs that it has.

After pledging to clean up Cancer Alley — the nickname for the heavily industrialized, 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — the EPA issued a letter in October 2022 detailing preliminary evidence of racial discrimination and noncompliance by the state.

Advocates like Lisa Jordan, who leads the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and the clients she represents were cautiously optimistic.

“We dared to hope,” said Jordan, who filed one of the complaints that led to EPA’s civil rights investigation.

The EPA’s findings brought LDEQ to the negotiating table. Documents and emails newly uncovered by WWNO and WRKF show that staff from the two agencies spent months negotiating a 43-page agreement that would have fundamentally changed Louisiana’s air pollution permitting program so that state regulators would have no longer allowed toxic emissions to disproportionately impact certain communities. While the EPA’s civil rights investigation could have led to a consent decree that forced LDEQ to change, this voluntary agreement offered a path to reform without punishment.

But, in late June, it all came to a grinding halt.

The EPA abruptly closed the case and ended discussions with the LDEQ, stopping its investigation without coming to a resolution or releasing its findings. The decision blindsided the River Parish residents who took part in the complaints.

“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,” said Joy Banner, a St. John the Baptist Parish resident and cofounder of the Descendants Project, in the weeks after. “After all of that fighting, they just abandoned us.”

WWNO/WRKF’s reporting reveals for the first time the fullest details of the draft agreement and offers a window into how negotiations between the two agencies unraveled. With Louisiana’s attorney general now suing the EPA, environmental justice experts and advocates fear that the breakdown could mark the beginning of a major attack on a core aspect of the Civil Rights Act.

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