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What happened to the EPA investigation into Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley'?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When President Joe Biden entered office, he promised to ensure environmental justice for communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by pollution. The head of Biden's EPA, Michael Regan, is the first Black man to lead the agency, and he told CNN back in 2021 that he sees this as a priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL REGAN: This administration and this EPA will operate differently than we ever have. You know, systemic racism is an issue that this country is dealing with. This administration is facing it head on.

DETROW: The top of Regan's list? An infamous 85-mile-long chemical corridor in Louisiana nicknamed Cancer Alley. Last year, the EPA launched a high-profile investigation into whether the state discriminated against Black communities there. A podcast called "Sea Change," produced by stations WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana, took a look at all of this. We'll talk to the podcast co-host Halle Parker in a bit, but first, we'll listen to part of that podcast, a visit she made to a town called Reserve.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SEA CHANGE")

AUTOMATED VOICE: Continue for 3 miles.

HALLE PARKER, BYLINE: Reserve is a 40-minute drive from New Orleans. It sits on the bank of the Mississippi River.

So I just went through LaPlace. And now I'm going on a winding road just along the levee. I'm passing by a lot of little houses, very, like, countryside.

I'm driving down what's called the Great River Road, which is next to the Mississippi and runs for about 70 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In some parts, it's beautiful, these bucolic country scenes. Farmland covered in sugar cane lines the street. But that's interrupted with stretches of industrial plants also here because of the river.

I'm approaching a plant. It's made up of a bunch of different, like, steel structures. There's some orangey lights. It's actually - now that I can see the label on one of the storage containers, it's the Denka plant.

This is how I know I've made it to Reserve, when I see the Denka Performance Elastomers plant. It's a chemical plant, the one this story is all about. It sits on about 250 acres on one edge of the community. The company has the rights to 600 acres, and a lot of the rest of that land is leased to a farmer who grazes his cows as well as burros, oddly enough, you know, those mini donkey-like animals from Africa.

And while you're driving, you're actually going underneath these pipelines that are lifted above the road and then go across from the facility over the levee and down toward where they load the material onto barges.

Denka produces neoprene, the stuff used to make things like wetsuits or beer koozies, although most of it is used by the automotive and construction industries for everything from hoses to roofing. It's heat resistant, waterproof and durable. But neoprene's key ingredient is also a pretty toxic chemical called chloroprene. Quick history lesson here. The plant didn't always belong to Denka, which is a Japanese chemical company. The American chemical giant DuPont first built the plant in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ADVERTISER: Brought to you by DuPont, makers of better things for better living through chemistry.

You and DuPont. There's a lot of good chemistry between us.

PARKER: DuPont actually invented both neoprene and chloroprene. And at one point, DuPont actually owned two plants manufacturing neoprene, the one in Reserve and its main facility in an area of Louisville, Ky., known as Rubber Town. But in 2008, the Rubber Town plant shut down. Why? Because of immense political pressure from local officials and residents who feared the pollution coming from that plant. So that's why this plant in Reserve is now the only neoprene plant in the United States, and Robert Taylor lives about a half-mile from it.

ROBERT TAYLOR: Good morning.

PARKER: Hey. How are you doing? I'm Halle.

TAYLOR: Halle? OK.

PARKER: Robert stands about 5'10" and wears glasses. He's a slim Black man, and for 82, his skin remains relatively uncrinkled. He moves slowly but deliberately, the same way he pursues his work as the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John. He founded the group six years ago to pressure the state and the company to cut emissions in Reserve and across St. John the Baptist Parish. We hop in his truck, and we go on a tour of Reserve. First, we head even closer to the plant. It's not a long drive. Just two streets over is the plant's fence line.

TAYLOR: I just wanted to let you see that the fence behind these homes, that's DuPont-Denka running all along here.

PARKER: Robert's had to deal with this for so long, he names both companies to describe the plant now run by Denka.

So this is literally the fence line community...

TAYLOR: This, oh, yeah.

PARKER: ...The streets.

TAYLOR: Yeah, this street here. Well, this is fence line right here, but the fence line moves with the community because we...

PARKER: We keep driving, following the fence as it winds through the neighborhood. Most of the homes are modest, all single-family homes. It's quiet. We take another turn and then see an elementary school building, the one I told you about with the air monitor outside, Fifth Ward Elementary School.

TAYLOR: Yeah. That's Fifth Ward there.

PARKER: Oh, OK.

TAYLOR: See? And that's where the property turns and goes around the playground.

PARKER: This school and its playground are closer to the Denka plant than almost anything else in town. The plant is just beyond a tree line. About 400 students go to school here, prekindergarten to fourth grade.

TAYLOR: Every day we're busing Black kids from all over the parish to this elementary school.

PARKER: And like Robert says, most of the kids are Black, same as Reserve. The school long precedes the plant, so does the neighborhood. When Robert went there in the 1950s, it was a high school. Now, it's all little kids. Most are younger than 9. And depending on which way the wind blows, they're breathing air that can have 30 to 180 times more chloroprene than what's considered safe. That's according to data from the air monitors, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, set up at the school and around the parish. For Robert, it's astonishing.

TAYLOR: I really can't find the words. I'm just flabbergasted, you know, at what these people are being allowed to get away with.

PARKER: But the plant might not get away with it for much longer. This school and the neighborhood are at the center of a historic civil rights investigation and a new federal commitment to slash air pollution. And this groundbreaking investigation could change everything. It could push the state to relocate Fifth Ward students to a school that's safer. That could prove difficult, though.

Driving around with Robert, I see that the Denka plant isn't the only petrochemical plant that residents are forced to live with. There's the Denka plant, two grain elevators and a massive marathon petroleum oil refinery. It's not something you only see in Reserve. I see it all the time when I drive along the Mississippi River. Which raises the question, how did Denka and all of these plants get here anyway? What's made this region along the river so attractive for chemical manufacturing, and why are they so often concentrated around areas like Reserve, areas that are Black?

DETROW: That was a portion of WWNO and WRKF's podcast "Sea Change," co-hosted by reporter Halle Parker, who joins me now with some updates, some big updates on this investigation in Louisiana. Hey, Halle.

PARKER: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: Why don't we start with that very last question you left us with? Why are so many chemical plants located in places like Reserve?

PARKER: Yeah. So back when I was reporting this episode, I actually learned a lot about the history of industrial development along the Mississippi River. So I found out that the answer to that question really dated back to slavery. You know, these giant plots of land owned by plantations were the perfect sites to build these big oil refineries and petrochemical plants near the river. And it came with all of these perks, perks like only having to deal with one landowner and easy access to the river for transport and export of their goods. But the land near those plantations is also where the people who used to be enslaved settled. So when the plants came to town, it also put those Black communities right up against the fence line.

DETROW: Interesting. So one of those big updates - since you and your team put out this episode, the EPA actually dropped the civil rights investigation into Cancer Alley. Have they explained that at all?

PARKER: Yeah. So they have given some explanation. They've said they weren't going to be able to finish their investigation by their deadline, so they ended up just dropping it. But I've tried to get a better understanding of all this, and they haven't responded to comment.

DETROW: Have you, through your reporting, been able to get any indications elsewhere of what they were thinking in doing that?

PARKER: Yeah. So, you know, I've been following this for a long time, so I really wanted to learn more. So I filed what's called a Freedom of Information Act request, looking for public records. And that's because the EPA had released a preliminary report that found evidence that the decisions of two Louisiana agencies did lead to the discrimination of Black residents. And, you know, the EPA and Louisiana's environmental regulator and its health department had entered negotiations to try to map out some changes everyone could agree to.

So the records that I got back from that FOIA gave me a glimpse into what the agreement they worked on would have included. I learned that it would have required the state to do robust studies and analyses on proposed industrial projects to figure out if that proposal would worsen racial disparities. And that's something Louisiana had never done before.

DETROW: And that would have been a big change.

PARKER: Yeah, that would have been a huge change. And that's something that lawyers and advocates say would have made a big difference, because they've been asking for it for a while. But while the EPA and the state agencies worked on that settlement agreement, it started to hit some snags. Louisiana's attorney general, Jeff Landry, hired lawyers to participate in the talks, and they also represented a chemical company that was named in the investigation, which led to concerns about a conflict of interest.

And Landry also launched a major lawsuit against the EPA over its civil rights investigation, basically arguing that the EPA had overstepped. His lawsuit partially hinges on this argument that the EPA's investigation would discriminate against Louisianans who aren't Black. Yeah. That's similar to a reverse racism argument that we heard in the lawsuit that led to the end of affirmative action in colleges earlier this year. So a few weeks after Landry sued, the talks started to fall apart, and the EPA just closed the case without resolution.

DETROW: I'd really love to know what some of the people you talked to think about all of these developments, like Robert, that resident and activist in Reserve. What has he said?

PARKER: Yeah. I'm glad that you said that, because I did talk to Robert in the months after the EPA dropped the case, and he told me that he was really shocked at first. This case was something that brought a lot of hope to residents who have opposed the pollution in their community. The EPA has said, you know, Robert's community has a cancer risk that's 50 times higher than the national average. So now he's frustrated because Regan, the head of the EPA, has promised to use his full power to help residents and hasn't.

TAYLOR: He stated that he was going to use all the tools in his toolbox. Well, I want to hold him to that.

DETROW: I mean, that 50 times higher is such an astounding statistic. You hear the EPA might be coming to help, it ends up not. I mean, what does Robert want to see happen next?

PARKER: Robert really just wants to make sure that the EPA is held accountable. And he says he's not giving up, along with a lot of other local activists. But, you know, meanwhile, the EPA has sued the Denka plant near Robert's home. And they did that earlier this year, saying that it poses this substantial and imminent danger to residents. So if that's successful, the lawsuit has the potential to require the company to pollute way less than it is now. And a hearing for that case is going to be scheduled in the next few weeks.

DETROW: That is Halle Parker, a co-host of "Sea Change," a podcast from stations WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana. Thank you so much.

PARKER: Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Carlyle Calhoun is the project's managing producer, and you can hear more of their follow up reporting about the EPA and Cancer Alley in more recent episodes wherever you find your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Halle Parker