Communities across the country sued the Environmental Protection Agency 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.
The lawsuit, filed in 2015 on behalf of our clients by Earthjustice and the Environmental Justice Clinic at Yale Law School, sought to compel the EPA to fulfill its duties to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and called on the agency to finally investigate these discrimination cases and issue long overdue findings and recommendations.
Under pressure from the lawsuit, EPA finally started to pay attention to these civil rights complaints, but — like in most cases — ended up conducting only cursory investigations and closed the book on the cases.
In 2020, a federal court ruled that the EPA violated the law by waiting a decade or more to investigate the civil rights complaints.