WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael S. Regan traveled to Jackson, Miss., in November to discuss the city’s poor water quality at an elementary school where children are required to drink bottled water and use portable toilets outside the building.
The day he arrived, the halls were mostly empty. The students had been sent home because the water pressure in the school was so low that even the portable toilets could not flush.
That scene and others said to witness as he traveled to low-income communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere prompted him to make some changes, he said.
On Wednesday, the EPA will announce it will step up monitoring and enforcement of federal regulations regarding air and water quality, especially in communities of color, which are disproportionately burdened by pollution.
“When I see the situation myself and talk directly to community members, it’s surprising where we get to this point — the point where kids miss school days because the water isn’t safe,” said Mr. regan. He called the environmental conditions he had seen in many parts of the nation “unacceptable in the United States of America.”
President Biden has made addressing racial inequalities, including those related to the environment, a vital part of his agenda. He convened an advisory board made up of some of the pioneers in the environmental justice movement. He instructed agencies to incorporate environmental justice into decision-making. And he promised underprivileged communities would receive at least 40 percent of the benefits from federal investment in climate and clean energy programs.
But recently, Cecilia Martinez, Mr. Biden’s chief environmental justice appointee, and another appointee, David Kieve, who liaised with environmental justice groups for the White House, both left their positions.
The departure has raised concerns about the future of Mr Biden’s environmental justice agenda.
Mr. Regan did not speak directly about the matter in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday, but he said he felt an obligation to marginalized communities where “people have waited long enough” for federal attention. He has spent the past year visiting cities and meeting community members as part of what the EPA has called his Journey to Justice tour.
“I promise to do better for people in communities that have been in pain for far too long,” said Mr. regan.
The agency will increase unannounced inspections to “keep polluting industries on their toes,” Mr Regan said, alleging the Trump administration hadn’t conducted enough such inspections. Oversight of polluting industries fell sharply in March 2020 when the Trump administration said those industries would not be held accountable if the pandemic made it difficult to meet federal limits on air and water pollution or requirements to manage hazardous waste. or to guarantee safe drinking water.
Among the changes announced Wednesday, the EPA said it would increase the number of air pollution inspectors and use new monitoring methods, such as a new plane that uses sensors and software to detect emissions in real time.
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Robert Taylor, 81, a lifelong resident of St. John Parish, La., and leader of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, became emotional as he described Mr. Regan’s visit to the region known as “cancer alley” because of the high rates of illness, especially among blacks and low-income communities near petrochemical plants.
“We were so trampled and knocked down by our efforts to protect ourselves, and we were attacked by those who were supposed to protect us,” said Mr Taylor.
In St. James Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish, the EPA plans to initiate air monitoring pilot projects and make the data available to the public. It is also earmarking $600,000 for mobile air pollution monitoring equipment to be deployed in those parishes.
The agency has also asked the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in St. James Parish to install monitors along its “fence line” to identify the source of emissions at its site. The plant uses the chemical chloroprene to make the synthetic rubber known as neoprene, and residents have long complained that pollution from the plant has caused health problems, including breathing difficulties and cancer.
The company complied, EPA said. Denka could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
In Jackson, Miss., a predominantly black city where residents have suffered from contaminated drinking water and chronic water outages, Mr. Regan said the EPA had given the city a non-compliance notice for failing to repair equipment to ensure safe drinking water in a “timely matter”.
Rev. James Caldwell, the founder and director of the Coalition of Community Organizations, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Houston, said, “Basically showing up, coming to our communities to see, breathe and smell what we’ve been talking about for years” was an important first step for an EPA administrator.