Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Civil Rights declined to investigate the State of Louisiana’s systematic abuse of a policy that disproportionately impacts the air quality in communities of color and low-income communities where polluting industry is often located.
Louisiana’s use of the policy, known as Significant Impact Levels (SILs), violates public health-based standards and federal law by allowing new major sources of air pollution to release even more toxic pollution in communities already at or over the legally allowable limit. Under Title VI, residents can petition EPA to investigate whether state programs funded by federal money are discriminating based on race, color, or national origin.
In response to a petition filed by environmental and community groups, EPA declined to take up a Civil Rights Act Title VI investigation on Louisiana’s use of the SILs policy, citing prematurity in light of ongoing litigation on State permit actions.
“The EPA’s decision to not investigate our civil rights environmental discrimination claims here in Louisiana is deeply concerning for me both as a Black woman and as a mom,” said Roishetta Sibley Ozane, director of the Vessel Project of Louisiana. “We cannot ignore the environmental injustices that are happening here in our communities because we know that we are disproportionately impacted by pollution. The EPA should not ignore these injustices either. We all deserve the right to clean air and clean water.”
The petition was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, RISE St. James, The Vessel Project of Louisiana, Better Bayou, Healthy Gulf, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Sierra Club. The Gulf groups also petitioned EPA under its Clean Air Act authority to investigate and remedy Louisiana’s and Texas’ abuses of the same policy; today’s decision does not affect those claims, which remain before the agency. The EPA responded, “Separate and apart from its Title VI authorities, EPA is currently working with LDEQ (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality) to address modeled National Ambient Air Quality Standards violations with new and/or existing sources in the new source review PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) air permitting program. This may reduce the impacts of LDEQ’s use of the SILs in its PSD permitting program.”
“Although we are disappointed that EPA is choosing not to pursue the Civil Rights Act violations at this time, we are confident that it has the authority to remedy Louisiana’s and Texas’ abuses of EPA’s policy and violations of the Clean Air Act and its protections, as well as the resulting sacrifice zones,” stated Elizabeth Livingston de Calderon, senior attorney for Earthjustice.
Under the Clean Air Act, EPA limits harmful air pollutants from major industrial sources like oil and gas facilities under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The Clean Air Act prohibits any new major source from being constructed if it would “cause or contribute” to air quality that does not meet the NAAQS. Louisiana and Texas permitting agencies are abusing an EPA policy, known as Significant Impact Levels, meant to apply only in areas without serious air quality and environmental justice concerns — which are both well-documented issues in the respective states.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — the state agencies that issue air permits with EPA oversight — routinely authorize major new sources of pollution in areas where air quality is so poor that it does not meet federal standards, ultimately abusing their authority to issue Clean Air Act permits.
The groups argued LDEQ and TCEQ, which have approved some of the nation’s largest petrochemical complexes and LNG export terminals, in practice created “sacrifice zones,” where predominately Black, Indigenous, Latin, and other people of color and low-income communities must live with air that is legally unhealthy and getting worse.
The petition challenging Louisiana’s abuse of the SILs policy followed other Title VI petitions from 2022 asking EPA to investigate and remedy Louisiana’s environmental injustices and civil rights violations. EPA had accepted jurisdiction and was investigating those complaints and made preliminary findings of discrimination. On May 24, Louisiana attorney general, Jeff Landry, filed a lawsuit attacking bedrock federal civil rights protections and EPA’s authority to enforce them. Last month, the Biden administration decided to close the 2022 civil rights complaints and the investigation into whether the State of Louisiana failed to protect communities overburdened by toxic air pollution.