Environmental Racism Persists, and the EPA is One Reason Why

The invasion of sewer flies moved residents of University Place subdivision to turn to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for help. Darting from a neighboring sewage plant, the flies descended upon the mostly African-American neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with such regularity that one resident posted this warning sign: Beware of attack fly


In 2009, residents grew so sickened by the flies, odors and pollution emanating from the city’s North Wastewater Treatment Plant that they sought out the federal agency that has touted the importance of tackling environmental racism.

“The citizens of University Place Subdivision are still suffering through the dreadful, unhealthy, and downright shameful conditions forced upon this community,” wrote Gregory Mitchell, whose mother, Mamie, erected that attack-fly warning atop her home, in a complaint filed with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights.

A little-known niche within the EPA, the civil-rights office has one mission: to ensure agencies that get EPA funding — like the city of Baton Rouge — not act in a discriminatory manner. The mandate comes from Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law prohibiting racial discrimination by those receiving federal financial assistance. Experts say the provision presents a significant legal tool for combating environmental injustice.

Time and again, however, communities of color living in the shadows of sewage plants, incinerators, steel mills, landfills and other industrial facilities across the country — from Baton Rouge to Syracuse, Phoenix to Chapel Hill — have found their claims denied by the EPA’s civil-rights office, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and NBC News shows. In its 22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the office has never once made a formal finding of a Title VI violation.

Months after receiving the Baton Rouge community’s Title VI complaint, the office rejected it. Investigators declined to examine the claim that the city had violated the civil rights of black property owners around the North plant, citing a pending lawsuit filed by residents against the city.

In 2010, Mitchell and neighbors again turned to the EPA and, again, the agency said no. Settling their lawsuit later that year, the residents logged a third complaint charging the city had discriminated against them. This time, the EPA rejected it on another technicality — it was “not timely.”

By 2012, they had returned to the EPA a fourth time, only to get a fourth rejection. Few communities have been rebuffed more than Baton Rouge. The distinction has left residents like Mitchell feeling as though regulators “say something to blow you off and just forget about it.”

“Under the EPA’s civil-rights division,” he said, “nothing is done.”

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