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EPA Must End Discrimination, Stop States from Permitting Polluters in Overburdened Communities of Color

10+ years of delays in civil rights investigations threatens health of communities nationwide
The expansion of ExxonMobil’s Beaumont Refinery in Texas is one of the cases where the EPA failed to investigate civil rights complaints filed more than a decade ago.

The expansion of ExxonMobil’s Beaumont Refinery in Texas is one of the cases where the EPA failed to investigate civil rights complaints filed more than a decade ago.

Photo courtesy of Randy Edwards
July 15, 2015
San Francisco, CA —

Today, communities across the country sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to investigate their civil rights complaints for more than a decade. The complaints involve discrimination by the states in granting permits that subject already overburdened low-income communities of color to more big-polluting facilities.

EPA accepted the complaints which are on permits for two gas-fired power plants in Pittsburg, Calif., a landfill in Tallassee, Ala., a hazardous waste facility in Chaves County, N.M., a wood-incinerator power station in Flint, Mich., and an oil-refinery expansion along the Texas Gulf Coast. These permits are for facilities in predominantly low-income African-American or Latino neighborhoods.

The complaints, filed between 1994 and 2003, argue that state agencies permitted these facilities through discriminatory actions, processes, patterns or practices. Many states failed to consider the environmental burden the facilities, like ExxonMobil’s refinery expansion in Beaumont, Texas, would have on residents who already suffer from elevated levels of asthma and breast cancer due to pollutants in the area. Others actively stopped residents from participating in public hearings on the permits, or provided them with inaccurate information.  

EPA’s delay allows these neighborhoods to continue to be harmed by the permits long after they were issued. Many of these facilities have already been built and are now on EPA’s “Significant Violators List” for their high levels of toxic pollutants. Some are paying hefty fines for Clean Air Act violations.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of CAlifornians for Renewable Energy (CARE) and its president Michael Boyd, Ashurst Bar/Smith Community Organization, Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter.

“It is unacceptable that the racial composition of a community continues to be a critical factor in predicting exposure to toxic contamination,” Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado said. “Justice has been delayed for too long. While EPA sits on these complaints, facilities continue to pollute and communities living in proximity to these facilities are deprived of their rights.”

“The low-income children and parents of the Pittsburg community have been waiting over a decade for the Civil Rights Act to deliver on the promise of environmental justice for all,” CARE President Michael Boyd said. “In order to do this, there needs to be a cultural change within the EPA. I hope this legal action is the catalyst, not only at the EPA, but the entire federal and state government too.”  

“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. “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.”

"The African American community is next to the ExxonMobil oil refinery and has been seeking clean air for years,” Neil Carman of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter said. “One way the state can do this is to take steps to lower toxic releases of hydrogen sulfide like those released by the refinery, and not permit ExxonMobil to release more."

Today’s lawsuit seeks to compel the EPA to fulfill its duties to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and calls on the agency to finally investigate these discrimination cases and issue long overdue findings and recommendations.

Read the filing. Read more about the complaints.