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Citizen Groups Sue EPA for Using Black Neighborhoods as “Sacrifice Zones”

The lawsuit alleges that the EPA has failed to protect vulnerable communities from cancer-causing chemicals.

Environmental citizen groups in Louisiana, West Virginia and Texas are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after Black communities in these states were excluded from an effort to tighten regulations regarding cancer-causing air pollution.

The lawsuit alleges that majority-Black communities in these states are disproportionately burdened with facilities that are major sources of pollution. These facilities produce polyether polyols and emit hazardous air pollutants, such as the carcinogen ethylene oxide. Inhalation of these cancer-causing pollutants can cause chronic, long-term harm, such as respiratory issues, degradation of the nervous system and the brain, and reproductive and developmental harms.

Many polyether polyols production plants are concentrated in Black and low-income communities, such as West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley,” located along the Kanawha River west of Charleston. Institute, a town in the heart of Chemical Valley and one of only two majority-Black communities in the state, is home to several of these facilities, including a Union Carbide plant. Residents of Institute and the surrounding area face an increased cancer risk that is 36 times the level considered acceptable by the EPA.

Pam Nixon, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a member of the Charleston-based citizen organization People Concerned About Chemical Safety, told Mountain State Spotlight that she feels like her community has been neglected by the EPA. In 1985, Nixon got sick after being exposed to a leak from the Institute plant.

“There is no justice yet until all communities are treated the same and until people everywhere are breathing clean air and it doesn’t impact the health of their families,” she said.

A 2021 ProPublica analysis of 7,600 facilities across the country that increase the cancer risk in nearby communities ranked the Union Carbide plant the 17th worst in the country. On average, the level of cancer risk from industrial air pollution in majority-Black communities is more than double that of majority-white communities across the country.

“The EPA allows polluters to turn neighborhoods into ‘sacrifice zones’ where residents breathe carcinogens,” the ProPublica report states. “That the people living inside these hot spots are disproportionately Black is not a coincidence. Our findings build on decades of evidence demonstrating that pollution is segregated: People of color are exposed to far greater levels of air pollution than whites.”

The ProPublica report notes that these disparities are rooted in racist practices like redlining, adding that white zoning boards have historically targeted Black neighborhoods for these facilities. Because many of these communities are low-income, they often lack the resources and political capital that wealthier neighborhoods can bring to fights against chemical facilities.

“Industries rely on having these sinks — these sacrifice zones — for polluting,” Ana Baptista, an environmental policy professor at The New School, told ProPublica. “That political calculus has kept in place a regulatory system that allows for the continued concentration of industry. We sacrifice these low-income, African American, Indigenous communities for the economic benefit of the region or state or country.”

In addition to West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley,” clusters of polyether polyols facilities are found in Black communities in “Cancer Alley,” which is along the Mississippi River in Louisiana and around Houston, Texas.

“These places didn’t happen by accident,” Matthew Tejada, the EPA’s director of environmental justice, told ProPublica. “The disproportionality of the impacts that they face, the generations of disinvestment and lack of access are not coincidences.”

“These places were created. And it is the responsibility of everyone, including the government — chiefly the government — to do something about it,” he went on.

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