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Top U.S. environmental regulator to visit Houston neighborhoods where Black and Latino residents bear brunt of pollution

EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Washington.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Washington.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan will visit Houston on Friday as part of a weeklong tour of neighborhoods across the South where pollution has impacted people's health — predominantly for Black and Latino residents.

In Jackson, Mississippi, on Monday, Regan said he would discuss what people deserve from the federal environmental agency and the disproportionate impact pollution has had in historically marginalized communities.

"I don't believe that all of the solutions are academic," Regan said Monday, the Mississippi Free Press reported. "I believe you all have been on the ground for years, determining what real solutions are for your communities."

Regan will visit New Orleans and three Louisiana parishes between Tuesday and Thursday and end the tour in Houston on Friday with visits to the Fifth Ward — a historically Black neighborhood that sits near two Superfund sites and contains a rail yard operated by Union Pacific that has been criticized for its handling of legacy hazardous waste — and neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel, a predominantly Latino area where fence lines bump up against refineries and other large industrial plants.

Some neighborhoods in Deer Park, one such community, have a combined cancer risk from industrial air pollution that's 1.4 times higher than the EPA's acceptable level, according to a recent ProPublica investigation.

Regan's appointment was largely seen as a decision by the Biden administration to prioritize environmental cleanups in historically marginalized communities due to his record of doing so in North Carolina, where he was previously the top state environmental regulator.

The tour is centered on environmental justice — the idea that a central aim of protecting the environment is to prioritize and protect human health, not simply preserve wild areas for aesthetic reasons. It's an old idea but garnered new political will in the aftermath of racial justice protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed last year in Minneapolis police custody.

Currently, the EPA does not consider the cumulative impact of pollution in an area before allowing an additional polluting facility to be added. That's a major concern for some communities of color in Texas, which tend to be disproportionately located near industrial areas.

"There's no requirement to figure out if there's three metal recyclers in a 1-mile radius, for example, so you end up in situations where you concentrate pollution with people," said Denae King, a toxicologist and research program manager at Texas Southern University. "We have to acknowledge what's already in a community before we add more facilities."

Neighborhoods near industrial facilities are often majority Black and Latino in Texas due to wealth inequality and the legacy of redlining, a federal housing policy that for decades segregated neighborhoods by race. A higher concentration of polluting plants in communities of color has resulted in disproportionate health impacts from air pollution for Black and Latino residents.

One study by University of Washington and University of Minnesota researchers found that Black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. experience over 50% more pollution than they generate, while white populations experience 17% less pollution than they generate. The American Lung Association found in a 2021 report that people of color were 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people.

Ahead of Regan's visit, environmental experts and community advocates said they hoped the Biden administration will prioritize toxic waste cleanups and take an aggressive approach to reducing air emissions in marginalized communities.

"For him to come here to our communities and put his eyes on the situation firsthand is invaluable," said Jackie Young-Medcalf, founder of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, which advocates for Superfund and toxic waste cleanups in Texas. "What makes one community whole may not make another community whole. We need to see the outreach efforts be more than just checking a box."

Biden's executive order on the climate crisis included the creation of an interagency council on environmental justice. And in October, the EPA accepted a civil rights complaint against Texas over its permitting of a Port Arthur petroleum coke plant.

"You have the makings of what could be a very supportive period for these communities," said Scott Badenoch, an environmental law professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law.

Still, Barry Hill, an expert on environmental justice issues and visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute commented in a November article that "executive orders can only go so far." He pointed out that during the Obama administration, lofty and ambitious goals to incorporate environmental justice in EPA planning yielded little and didn't last under the Trump administration without the teeth of environmental justice legislation.

"The pattern continues for environmental justice bills to be introduced and referred to committee, where the bills most likely will die, except for congressional resolutions, because of the lack of Republican support and the narrow lead of the Democrats in the Senate," said Hill, who is also an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who died last year, first introduced an Environmental Justice Act in 1992, seeking to address racial discrimination in the EPA's administration and enforcement of environmental laws; Congress never passed it. In August, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, reintroduced a version of the bill that would require federal agencies to implement and update a strategy to address negative environmental and health impacts on communities of color and low-income communities.

Disclosure: Texas Southern University – Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs and Union Pacific Railroad Company have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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