Residents in ‘Cancer Alley’ push for stricter emissions standards

Local activists want action after EPA drops civil rights investigation.

Residents in ‘Cancer Alley’ push for stricter emissions standards
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, left, embraces Robert Taylor, head of Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish. (Greg LaRose / Louisiana Illuminator)

Published in the Louisiana Illuminator

Black residents living in the industry-heavy communities along the Mississippi River dubbed “Louisiana’s Cancer Alley” are now pushing the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency to make more stringent updates to its guidelines that regulate facilities emitting hazardous chemicals.

They want the EPA to mandate that all petrochemical and manufacturing facilities governed under the Clean Air Act have fenceline air monitors to track emissions levels, limit their excessive flaring events, install systems to detect chemical leaks and close certain loopholes around provisions that allow increased emissions releases during extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

Their push comes shortly after the EPA recently announced it was dropping its investigation into a civil rights complaint filed on behalf of residents of St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes. It asserted the state failed to protect the local community from years of toxic air emissions from nearby petrochemical plants and manufacturing facilities. 

Updating the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) provisions within the Clean Air Act to address some of the concerns raised in the civil rights complaint was one of the solutions the EPA noted in its announcement to drop its investigation. 

“We’re expecting them to actually act on what they can control, which is making these rules as strong as they possibly can be to protect us,” said Jo Banner, a community activist and St. John the Baptist resident. “We now, more than ever, expect the EPA to step up to the plate. They have the power to make the laws appropriately as strong as they need to be.”

Currently, the NESHAP doesn’t require plants to have air monitoring or leaks detection systems. The stipulations mostly include inspections of facility reports, records around wastewater discharges and repair methods associated with the processing and transport for the type of hazardous pollutants associated with cancer and other serious respiratory and health issues.

EPA spokesman Joseph Robledo in a prepared statement said the agency has an “unprecedented commitment” to environmental justice and remains fully committed to “improving the environmental conditions” for residents in St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes.

The EPA’s public comment period on the matter closed Friday. A virtual public hearing was held in May. The agency  is under consent decree to issue its final ruling by March 29, 2024. 

“The lived experiences of impacted communities must be central in EPA decision-making, and EPA remains committed to working closely with community leaders and the environmental justice community to bring more voices to the table,” Robledo stated. 

Myrtle Felton, a St. James Parish resident who has lived within the shadow of multiple petrochemical plants for more than 40 years, said she has little faith in the EPA following its decision around her community’s civil rights complaint. 

“It really feels like they’re leaving us to die,” Felton said. “We need them to do their job. Protect the people.”

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Terry is a Baton Rouge, Louisiana native and has lived and worked there for the last decade. Before joining Floodlight, he was the City Hall reporter for The Advocate.

Terry L. Jones/Floodlight