EPA chief vows to take on Republican-led states over pollution rules rollback

<span>The EPA administrator, Michael Regan, speaks near a petroleum refinery in Reserve, Louisiana, on 16 November 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP</span>
The EPA administrator, Michael Regan, speaks near a petroleum refinery in Reserve, Louisiana, on 16 November 2021.Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Republican-led states attacking protections shielding disadvantaged communities from industrial pollution will be confronted by the Biden administration, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned.

In a Guardian interview, Michael Regan, administrator of the EPA, also denied abandoning those who face the brunt of air and water contamination in the US.

Regan said that Biden has “gone further than any other administration since the EPA was formed in 1970” to advance environmental justice. He rejected criticism that the EPA was shying away from a deepening battle with a coalition of states that aim to prevent the federal government from challenging pollution on civil rights grounds.

Advocates have accused the EPA of retreating from civil rights cases in states including Louisiana, Texas and Michigan amid a Republican assault on using civil rights laws to combat environmental problems such as air pollution which, studies show, disproportionately affects people of color.

Last year, the EPA dropped an investigation into whether Louisiana placed Black residents in an industrial stretch of the state nicknamed “Cancer Alley” at heightened risk of cancer, despite finding initial evidence of racial discrimination. Louisiana had filed a lawsuit challenging the investigation, criticizing it as a “dystopian nightmare” and calling the EPA “social justice warriors fixated on race”.

Hopes that similar civil rights cases in Flint, Michigan, and Houston, Texas, could remedy separate instances of environmental discrimination have also been dashed since the decision.

“I think the Biden administration’s EPA has potentially achieved the biggest leap forward on justice and rights since the 1960s,” said Matthew Tejada, who was a senior official working on environmental justice at the EPA for a decade, before leaving in December. “There have been huge, undeniable wins.”

“But what happened with the civil rights program is a gut punch,” he added. “When it came to standing up to Louisiana on environmental injustice, the EPA flinched. That’s very troubling.”

Regan dismissed this, however. “We are absolutely willing to take on the states,” the EPA administrator said in an interview with the Guardian. “I completely reject the notion we are afraid to take on any state; we are willing to fight for people wherever they are. We are very much committed to civil rights.”

In April, Republican attorneys general from 23 states demanded the EPA stop compelling them to resolve air, water and other pollution under title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents racial discrimination by entities that receive federal funding.

The EPA has argued that this “disparate impact” provision means that states are violating the act if they force specific racial groups to face the dangers of pollution from highways, industrial plants and other sources.

“In practice, ‘environmental justice’ asks the states to engage in racial engineering in deciding to, for example, issue environmental permits,” the letter from the Republican-led states complains, pointing out that the supreme court views the EPA’s actions as potentially unlawful.

Regan conceded that the EPA was “very realistic” about the hostile reception it will get in certain courts, such as the conservative-dominated supreme court, which he called a “tough venue” to hear arguments that certain Americans face discrimination due to the pollutants they are exposed to.

The Civil Rights Act was “a difficult tool to use to achieve some of the goals we want to achieve”, said Regan. “We want to get at these immediate threats of pollution and we are trying to pursue tools in the toolbox that are stronger, faster and more readily available,” he added.

“We are not taking any legal action off the table but children in these communities need relief right now, grandmothers who have been breathing in pollutants for 20 years need relief right now. We have been very strategic.”

Regan cited a litany of regulatory, as well as legal, accomplishments made under Biden, such as the establishment of more stringent emissions rules for cars, trucks and power plants, key sources of pollution in low-income, Black and Hispanic communities, as well as specific actions to tackle a drinking water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, and raw sewage in Alabama. A beefed-up environmental justice office, with 200 staffers, now sits in the heart of the EPA apparatus.

Regan, who has a history of environmental justice work as an official in North Carolina, made a trip to meet residents of Cancer Alley in Louisiana in 2021 which he said was “life-changing”. Last year, the EPA sued Denka, a manufacturer of neoprene, which is used to make wetsuits and other items, due to the cancer risk its emissions pose to Cancer Alley residents. In April, the agency passed a broader rule to slash emissions of toxins from chemical plants across the US.

“We were all shedding tears of joy when we passed that rule, which will reduce the cancer risk rate by 96% for communities like those that live near Denka,” said Regan.

“I was determined after that visit the EPA would take action. We did just that. We are very optimistic that our actions are taking root in these communities and communities are responding well.” He added that Biden had made environmental justice a “core pillar” of his administration.

Environmental groups have been critical of the Biden administration over its ongoing issuance of oil and gas drilling licenses, however, such the controversial Willow oil complex in Alaska, and for allowing oil and gas production to hit historic highs despite the impact upon the climate crisis and communities living near fossil fuel infrastructure.

Further opprobrium has been heaped upon the emerging industry of carbon capture and storage, which has received federal government support as a way to sequester emissions from industries and has spawned a fresh network of pipelines and other facilities through certain communities. In December, the EPA gave Louisiana, a bastion of oil and gas industry influence, the right to make its own environmental decisions over a boom in new CCS sites.

“No agency should be issuing carbon injection well permits, but especially not overwhelmed and understaffed agencies in fossil fuel states like Louisiana,” said Jane Patton, a campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law.

Regan said the EPA wanted to “bring the community along” on sharing concerns over CCS and denied that the Biden administration was too accommodating to the oil and gas industry. “This administration has done more to reduce fossil fuel pollution than any administration, when you add up the tonnage we are by far in the history books,” he said.

Sharon Lavigne, a teacher and activist who met Regan on his tour of Cancer Alley, said the dropping of the civil rights investigation in Louisiana was “very disappointing” but that the administrator seemed moved by residents’ plight.

“He’s the only one who ever came down to see us, he saw himself how bad it is and I think it touched his heart, I could see in his face he was concerned and was thinking ‘how could people live like this?’” she said. “We can’t have any more death caused by this pollution, we don’t have time. I think he understands that.”

The EPA’s tangle with states will be further shaped by November’s presidential election. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has vowed to dismantle Biden’s environmental policies. Work on environmental justice is likely to be demolished under Trump, whose campaign mantra has been “drill, baby drill”, with favors promised to the oil and gas industry in return for campaign donations.

“If we get the wrong person as president, there will be a crisis for communities like ours,” said Lavigne. “It will be a death sentence for us. That is what Donald Trump is for us.”