By Molly Brackin, Monitoring & Evaluation Associate and Andy Zellinger, Research Analyst
The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice hosted the United States Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 Environmental Justice Community Training Workshop on September 25th through the 27th at the Renaissance Hotel in New Orleans. The purpose of this event, as touted by the EPA, was to come up with action items to address environmental injustices across EPA Region 6, which includes Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. The action items were to be based on conference participants’ consensus on what the biggest “issues” were; subsequently potential “solutions” voiced as prioritized recommendations to the EPA Region 6 Office of Environmental Justice.
Attending this conference was a frustrating experience for the Louisiana Bucket brigade members in attendance – and most likely other participants as well. Many of the panelists were from communities around the state of Louisiana that have been fighting environmental injustices most of their lives. Almost no one had a happy ending to their story. Very few of the stories even had endings because the recurring injustices seem to build exponentially through time. Some of the more severe present day environmental injustices leave communities without a choice of what to fight for – as they reluctantly seek relocation as the last viable option.
Whether it is the Mossville, La community (which was founded by African Americans in the 1790’s) dealing with new facilities on top of the fourteen that already operate in their hometown, Alexandria residents suffering from the effects of creosote contaminating the air they breathe and the water they drink, every presentation was more shocking than the last. The numerous communities each with their own unique grievances against the petrochemical industry from injustices were clearly the focus of this event. The EPA met this topic with mild enthusiasm. EPA staff clearly acknowledged that region 6 residents have people to turn to for help in the EPA OEJ, but were not as clear on how they would execute the action items which were the agreed upon path for helping these communities. At various points the EPA representatives would respond to a recommended solution with reactions validating that Louisiana and Texas are the heart of the country’s petrochemical infrastructure, and we will continue to deal with the consequences of this dirty industry for as long as Americans use automobiles and lawnmowers.
There are so many communities in Louisiana that have been fighting for a healthy environment for decades. In some cases the fight for justice is passed on from generation to generation. Ronesha Johnson spoke at the conference about her involvement with Residents for Air Neutralization (RAN), which was started by her grandmother Velma White. Her presentation made a huge impact on those in attendance as it became clear that these struggles have been going on for a long time, and will, unfortunately, continue. The audience was shocked when Ronesha explained the fight in Shreveport has been ongoing for 21 years – a year longer than Ronesha has been alive. Many participants were inspired by her families’ resilience to overcome personal health issues, and their tenacity to fight environmental injustice.
It seems that the only people who were not affected by the heart wrenching stories of loss or the inspiring stories of families fighting together were the government officials. Israel Anderson of the EPA looked bored and fidgety and Chris Ratcliff from the LDEQ sat stone-faced during the emotional presentations. At one point during the conference a resident of Baton Rouge was reprimanded for “raising her voice” at Chris Ratcliff as he gave round-about answers to a question about the settlement with Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge. This incident is a perfect example of the mood surrounding the conference. The draw for the event was the chance for community members to air their grievances to government officials. Over and over again people voiced their frustrations with the system, but even with government officials sitting a few feet away, it became clear that their voices were still going unheard. At lot of great ideas for addressing environmental injustice were presented by community members, but these ideas were continuously met with the same response. EPA and LDEQ kept throwing out excuses of inadequate staffing and funds as barriers to creating any real change. Prior to and during the conference Louisiana Bucket Brigade staff has been adamant that there is an easy solution to this tired excuse. If LDEQ were to raise the minimum fine for permit infractions to at least the Federal minimum they could raise the revenue needed to actually address the issues that have been presented.
So while the purpose of the conference was to come up with actions items, the reality is that it was all about talk and absolutely no action. Many of the conference attendees have been struggling with environmental injustices for decades because they are continuously fed excuses from both industry and government. Justice is well overdue. These people need their lives and their health back, not more excuses.