Black Environmental Justice Activists Respond to EPA Decision to Drop Cancer Alley Investigation

Photo courtesy Earthjustice and People Over Plastic

During ESSENCE Fest, five Black female environmental justice activists responded to the EPA’s decision to drop it’s civil rights investigation into Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health.

In a June 27 court filing, the EPA said that “it is not feasible to reach agreement” with the Louisiana Department of Health and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality by a July 11 deadline for issuing preliminary findings or resolving allegations of systemic racism. Instead, the EPA asserts that it has taken several steps to resolve the environmental quality issue through other means, including:

  • Issuing a consent agreement ordering Denka to improve its waste management practices and lower chloroprene emissions
  • Filing a civil complaint in federal court against Denka under the Clean Air Act to force the company to take immediate measures to lower chloroprene emissions and address and mitigate the harm to public health.
  • Published a proposed rule that should “significantly reduce emissions of toxic and other harmful air pollutants, including chloroprene and ethylene oxide” from Denka and other chemical plants nationwide.

“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 Dr. Joy Banner, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Descendants Project. “After all of that fighting, they just abandoned us… but this pain is not something that’s foreign to us. We’re used to them making the most vulnerable do all the work.”

Dr. Banner also criticized EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s appearance at ESSENCE Festival alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, though neither attended the community event discussing EPA issues. Regan joined several events at ESSENCE Fest, including the Global Black Economic Forum’s discussion on the intersection of environmental and economic justice.”why is Michael Regan not here listening to us?” Dr. Banner asked. “[He] owes us this much. I don’t care if it’s uncomfortable. Chemotherapy is uncomfortable.”

“Until we are supported, have the resources, and unrestricted funding that we don’t have to report on all the time because we are in the community every day. Until we have general operating budgets, support, and the understanding that my community hears my sirens everyday… until you can hear those sirens, don’t tell us what our community needs,” said Roishetta Sibley Ozane, Founder of the Vessel Project of Louisiana. “Trust us when we tell you [what our community needs].”

The Biden administration had promised to help minority communities that are disproportionately subjected to pollution. In 2021,  Regan conducted a five-day “Journey to Justice” listening tour where he visited communities across the south, including New Orleans’ Gordon Plaza, but local activists had remained skeptical. Now it seems that skepticism is well-earned.

“I feel like we were put on the back burner,” Rise St. James founder Sharon Lavigne told the Washington Post. The group has been fighting for environmental justice for years alongside the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and other environmental activist groups.

“This decision is especially concerning as EPA considers granting LA agencies all permitting and regulatory authority over carbon waste injections wells,” said the Alliance for Affordable Energy in a tweet following the EPA’s announcement.

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