Federal Court Deals Major Blow to Environmental Civil Rights Enforcement

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ruling restricts EPA and DOJ from protecting Louisiana communities from disparate environmental impacts


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

Today, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction restricting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) from imposing or enforcing disparate impact-based requirements under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act against Louisiana and its agencies. Title VI prohibits federal fund recipients from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin. Residents can petition the EPA to enforce Title VI against state agencies that intentionally discriminate or disparately impact a protected group.

In May of 2023, Attorney General of Louisiana Jeff Landry (now governor) sued EPA to stop the federal government from investigating civil rights complaints by communities of color that have been subjected to disproportionate harm. Nearly a month later, the EPA closed a years-long civil rights investigation in St. John the Baptist Parish — a historically Black community with some of the highest cancer rates from toxic air pollution in the country — without relief to its residents. Oral arguments in Louisiana’s lawsuit took place on January 9th.

“The court’s decision to issue this injunction is bad enough, but what’s worse is that instead of fixing the discriminatory permitting programs that have created sacrifice zones like Cancer Alley, Louisiana is fighting tooth and nail to keep them in place,” said Sam Sankar, Earthjustice’s Senior Vice President of Programs. “The public health crisis in St. John the Baptist Parish shows us why we need Title VI: EPA needs to be able to use our civil rights laws to stop states from running permitting programs that perpetuate environmental injustice.”

In January 2022, Earthjustice filed a complaint on behalf of affected St. John residents asking the EPA to investigate whether Louisiana agencies had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by failing to protect Black communities from disproportionate environmental harm. Shortly after EPA closed its years-long investigation in Louisiana, Michigan walked away from Title VI negotiations it had with EPA regarding industrial pollution in Flint.

A recent study revealed stark disparities in industrial pollutant emissions in Louisiana. Communities of color face 7 to 21 times the pollution levels that industrialized white communities face, according to the study, which identified Louisiana’s permitting system as the main cause of air pollution in Cancer Alley.

Approaching its 60th anniversary in July, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act was enacted to address discrimination. There are more than 50 pending Title VI cases, and hundreds have been filed. 

Homes are adjacent to a Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana.
Homes are adjacent to a Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana. (Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice)

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