Michael Coleman’s house is the only one that still stands on a narrow street that sits between an oil refinery. Petroleum that keeps him from sleeping and a huge silo that covers his truck in dust and aggravates his respiratory problems.
Coleman, who is 65, points to the fireplace by his patio. “When the (industrial) plants arrived, they built on top of us,” he said. “We were surrounded by sugar cane and now we are surrounded by plants.”
The oil company offered to buy his house, but Coleman refused. “I want a fair deal,” he explained. Meanwhile, he copes with high blood pressure, thyroid problems and other health ailments that he attributes to pollution generated over decades by neighboring industries, the Marathon Petroleum refinery and Cargill’s grain depot.
The St. John the Baptist district, where Coleman lives, is part of an 85-mile (137-kilometer) strip between New Orleans and Baton Rouge called the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, known to locals as Cancer Alley. .
In the region there are several points where the danger of contracting cancer is well above the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency, known by its acronym in English, EPA.
EPA Director Michael Regan visited Coleman and other residents during a five-day tour of areas between Mississippi and Texas in mid-November, and got a first-hand look at the impact of air pollution on low-income communities, where minorities mostly reside.
A study of toxic emissions prepared by the EPA indicates that minorities represent 56% of residents near toxic sectors such as refineries, garbage dumps and chemical plants. The negative effects include chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension.
“I was able to put faces and names to what we call ‘environmental justice,'” Regan said at a news conference in front of Coleman’s ramshackle home, whose roof damaged by Hurricane Ida is covered by a blue awning.
“This is what we mean when we talk about communities attached to industrial sites that have been disproportionately affected by pollution and that have to live in these conditions,” added the official.
“Environmental justice” has been one of Regan’s priorities since he took over the leadership of EPA in March. He is the first black person to run this agency and said in an interview that the issue “is something very personal to me, as well as professional.”
“The people of these communities are just like me. To my son. It’s hard to see them criticize the quality of the water they drink ”, he declared.
Historically underserved communities like St. John and St. James will benefit from a recently approved $ 1 trillion program to improve the nation’s infrastructure, according to Regan. The law includes $ 55 billion for water and waste infrastructure.
Another bill under study in the Senate would allocate more than double that amount to EPA programs to clean up the environment and address other water-related environmental issues that affect these communities.
Regan says the new laws will help, but they will not solve overnight decades of neglect and the health problems that affect mostly black, Hispanic and other minority communities.
Permissive laws for the installation of industries and urbanization have pushed racial and ethnic minorities into sectors close to polluting industries at a much higher percentage than that of the general population.
In an October legislative hearing, oil industry executives avoided answering questions about whether refineries and other facilities tended to be installed alongside low-income and minority communities.
In Louisiana, a recent inspector general report said the EPA failed to adequately protect St. John, St. James and other districts from emissions of chloroprene and ethylene oxide, two poisons used in industrial processes.
“If the EPA, the federal government, the state governments, and the municipal authorities had done their job, we wouldn’t have this situation,” Regan said in St. John.
He added that, “for the first time,” the EPA was not questioning the existence of environmental injustices. “We acknowledge its existence. We tell these communities that we have to do things better, and we will do them. “
School without water
Regan visited Wilkins Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi, where students use temporary restrooms outside the building because the school’s toilets cannot be used due to low water pressure.
Kingston Lewis, a nine-year-old boy who spoke to Regan, said he doesn’t like having to go out to the bathroom.
“You cannot attend class for a long time and there is a very bad smell,” he said.
School principal Cheryl Brown said having to rely on portable toilets is “degrading” and “inhumane on all levels.”
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says the city requires about $ 2 billion to fix its water infrastructure, but expects to receive much less. He argued that this largely African-American community “does not receive an equitable percentage of the state’s resources,” controlled by the Republicans.
American dream or nightmare?
Regan also visited Gordon Plaza, a New Orleans neighborhood built on top of a former landfill. In the 1990s, a highly polluted area that required cleaning was designated, but dozens of mostly black families still live there, waiting for their houses to be bought to leave, and they feel forgotten.
Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, said that “you can feel the chemicals in your mouth. It is something that cannot be ignored ”. “The EPA will help them solve this problem,” promised Regan.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell pledged $ 35 million to Gordon Plaza, but residents say many promises have already been made to them that have not been kept.
“You try to live the American dream and it turns into a nightmare. There is no justice, ”said Earl Smothers, a local resident.
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