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After EPA Ignored Environmental Racism for Decades, Communities Fight Back

On behalf of communities across the United States, Earthjustice files suit for government violation of civil rights laws

Rally for Good Jobs and Clean Air in March, 2008 at Oakland, California City Hall. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Anderson)

Rally for Good Jobs and Clean Air in March, 2008 at Oakland, California City Hall. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Anderson)

The Environmental Protection Agency has been ignoring complaints about environmental racism across the United States for up to 20 years, repeatedly failing to investigate evidence that incinerators, power plants, and hazardous waste dumps are disproportionally harming the health of low-income communities of color, a new lawsuit charges.

Filed Wednesday by environmental advocacy organization Earthjustice on behalf of communities across the country, the lawsuit argues that the EPA failed to take adequate action in response to complaints that states were violating civil rights laws by granting permits to hazardous polluters primarily in poor and working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Residents and lawyers identify environmental racism relating to: two power plants in Pittsburg, California; a landfill in Tallassee, Alabama; a hazardous waste dump and treatment facility in Chaves County, New Mexico; a wood-incinerator power station in Flint, Michigan; and an oil-refinery in Beaumont, Texas.

In some places, states failed to fully consider the impact of the facilities on local communities. In others, state authorities "actively stopped residents from participating in public hearings on the permits, or provided them with inaccurate information," a summary of the lawsuit charges.

Complaints were filed to the EPA as early as 1994, with the most recent in 2003. Residents, still waiting for meaningful action from the EPA, say the federal agency is complicit in the harm being done to them.

Neil Carman of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter told Common Dreams that the ExxonMobil oil refinery in Beaumont, Texas is right next to a 95 percent African-American community that has been complaining about severe air pollution.

"In 2000 a complaint was submitted to the EPA about a permit, granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that allowed an increase in hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas," explained Carman. "The only thing the EPA did was write a response letter within a year or two saying they were going to accept part of the complaint. But since then we haven't heard from the EPA again."

Wednesday's suit charges that the EPA failed to meet its requirements under the Civil Rights Act and demands that the agency investigate and issue recommendations on all of the cases.

"Here in New Mexico, EPA’s inaction has allowed the state to continue to ignore the public, especially low-income communities and communities of color," Deborah Reade, Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, said in a press statement. "The state disproportionately sites more and more facilities in these communities before old contamination is even cleaned up. It hides public documents, makes it difficult to obtain information in a timely manner and generally refuses to take disparate impacts on Environmental Justice communities into consideration when permitting sites."

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