Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

EPA promised to help communities with toxic air, but they’re still waiting

By Anna Phillips, Amudalat Ajasa and Timothy Puko Washington Post

LAKE CHARLES, La. – As a girl growing up near refineries and chemical factories in this part of the Gulf Coast, 77-year-old Lois Malvo thought nothing of the way her eyes burned when she played outside. Now she sees dangers all around her.

The smell of rotten eggs and gasoline frequently fills her low-slung home, which lacks running water and leans to one side. Most days, she wakes up in the grips of a coughing fit. Cancer, which she blames on the toxic chemicals in the air, killed her sister and afflicted both of her brothers as well as herself.

“Our health lets us know that something isn’t right,” she said. “We’re being attacked by the industry because we’re vulnerable people and really, nobody cares about us.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan tried to change perceptions of those like Malvo when he toured pollution-choked communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas two years ago, assuring residents that the Biden administration was committed to reversing years of inaction.

But with less than a year left before the next presidential election, the EPA is struggling to carry out the kind of aggressive enforcement that would make a difference in the lives of Malvo and others on the Gulf Coast. The agency has only recently begun to crack down on air pollution in the region, according to interviews with five current and former EPA employees, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, and a review of public enforcement documents and emissions data compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group. Environmentalists and residents fear it may be running out of time.

The number of refineries and chemical plants emitting high levels of benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia, has fallen slightly since Biden took office. But as of this summer, data shows eight facilities continued to release excessive amounts of the sweet-smelling gas, which is one of the most dangerous pollutants that these industries emit. All but one of them are near disadvantaged communities in Texas and Louisiana. While the EPA has recently stepped up enforcement, regulators only acted after the inspector general opened an investigation, according to interviews with agency staff. That probe found in September that for years, the agency did not enforce the federal “action level” for the carcinogen.

The EPA, making good on Regan’s commitment to increase monitoring of polluting industries, sent a team of inspectors to Louisiana last year. But in a few cases where inspectors found glaring problems, records show that the agency has not issued notices of violations after a year and a half. Other cases are progressing so slowly that advocates fear they may be dropped if Donald Trump wins the 2024 presidential election.

Meanwhile, people living near these plants continue to be jolted by regular fiery explosions, which add to the toxic chemicals wafting through communities in Houston, Lake Charles, Corpus Christi, Texas, and elsewhere.

EPA officials said they are working to hold polluters accountable and blamed the delays on more than a decade of budget cuts that have cost the agency 30% of its enforcement and compliance staff, a total of 950 staffers. They said the agency has hired 300 people to address the shortage. They provided data showing that the EPA’s regional office in Texas has conducted 740 inspections across five states this year, the majority in disadvantaged communities, compared with 516 in 2022.

They also pointed to enforcement actions along the Gulf Coast, including one this year against Denka, a Louisiana-based synthetic rubber maker, where the Justice Department alleged in a lawsuit that the plant’s emissions of cancer-causing chloroprene had caused “imminent and substantial endangerment” and demanded that it install better pollution controls. Denka has denied the claims.

“None of us thought that we would solve these problems overnight, but we continue to work in partnership,” Regan said in a call with reporters this month, noting that many of the people he met on the tour appreciated the administration’s attention. “Through funding, through regulations, through policy, through enforcement, we will continue to tackle these problems until we get the job done.”

Beyond staff shortages, other factors have made it harder for Regan to deliver on the relief that advocates were seeking. EPA employees interviewed for this story said internal disputes over turf have created bottlenecks in processing cases, adding to a backlog from the Trump era when enforcement activity decreased.

Within the agency, some have blamed the delays on EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, which covers Texas, Louisiana and three adjoining states. Though the office is tasked with making sure state regulators properly enforce the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws, environmental advocates say it has been far too lenient under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Debbie Ford, a senior EPA enforcement officer who retired from the Dallas office in 2021, said that during Trump’s presidency, Region 6 embraced the administration’s philosophy of “cooperative federalism,” which meant handing more enforcement responsibility over to the states. The office’s air enforcement team tried to look busy, she said, by pursuing simple cases that could be closed quickly and that rarely led to big fines or emissions reductions.

When refinery fence-line monitors showed that high levels of benzene were drifting toward neighborhoods, Region 6’s air enforcement section dragged its feet, Ford said.

The situation in Port Arthur, Texas, showed how the failure to curb releases of toxic chemicals has hit Black and Latino residents the hardest. Home to the largest concentration of oil refineries in the nation, this city of 56,000 is located in a county with a higher rate of cancer mortality than Texas overall. As of 2020, the population was 37% Black, with an equal number of Latino residents.

Yet throughout the Trump administration and most of the first two years of Biden’s presidency, the EPA took no action to lower benzene emissions from TotalEnergies’ Port Arthur refinery, according to a review of public enforcement documents. Monitoring reports showed that the refinery has emitted high levels of benzene – above the limit that is supposed to trigger cleanup – every year since the federal government began collecting data in 2018. The agency sent a notice of violation to the company in October.

“They’re not really taking these things on the way they need to,” said John Beard Jr., founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, an environmental advocacy group. “If you can’t go to the EPA, who can you go to? It’s not like we can hold our breath.”

Waiting for justice

Dozens of chemical plants and nearly 50 refineries dot the skyline in Texas and Louisiana, the majority of them along the Gulf Coast. In a region known as Cancer Alley – which winds for 85 miles along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – numerous leaks and broken equipment have sent highly toxic chemicals into neighboring communities.

Much of this heavy industry sits right next to predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, where decades of disinvestment and federal redlining practices have brought the two together. In the 1930s, when surveyors hired by the government ranked the desirability of neighborhoods for investment purposes, they assigned the lowest letter grades to Black and immigrant areas. Many of these communities were already home to highways, rail yards and heavy industry.

According to a study published last year, funded in part by the EPA, cities where neighborhoods were redlined tended to have higher levels of air pollution nearly a century later.

Polluting industries in Louisiana and Texas have historically faced few consequences, and residents said they have rarely been able to count on the federal government to act as a backstop.

These industries are also major employers, which often makes nearby residents reluctant to complain about air pollution, said Cassandra Casados-Klein, who has lived most of her life near Texas petrochemical facilities in Pasadena and Deer Park.

“The idea around refineries was always that ‘these are jobs,’” said Casados-Klein, a communications coordinator at Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “You would have to go against the culture to say that this pollution is not good for your health.”

Industrial accidents and excessive pollution are pervasive in some of these communities.

This year, a chemical facility owned by the oil giant Shell erupted in flames in Deer Park, burning on and off for nearly three days and releasing pollutants into the air and the Houston Ship Channel. Following a chemical leak, an August fire at the Marathon refinery in Garyville, Louisiana, led to a mandatory evacuation order for residents living within two miles. Three months later, officials told residents to shelter in place when a fire broke out at a chemical distribution plant in a rural area northeast of Houston, sending a huge plume of black smoke into the air.

Justin and Policarpio Braly have had enough. The couple, who live in Deer Park, were driving when the Shell plant caught fire and felt their SUV shake as a boom sounded and the sky filled with smoke. Back in 2019, when another plant caught fire, red lesions appeared on Justin Braly’s skin and he smelled what he now knows is benzene.

“We don’t want to be around the chemical plants anymore,” Justin Braly said, explaining their decision to start looking for a new home. “We’re moving out to the country to where we’re not as close.”

But relocating for cleaner air isn’t possible for everyone.

At 78, Shirley Payne said she can’t pick up and leave the family and life she’s built in Port Arthur over nearly four decades. Her home is hemmed in on two sides by enormous oil tanks, part of a sprawling tank farm that has expanded over the years until it reached the edge of her backyard, she said. She and her neighbors swap tales of quaking homes, strange smells and unexplained illnesses. She doesn’t let her great-grandchildren play outside when they visit.

Payne said there was a day about five years ago when it smelled so bad that she called the fire department.

The inspectors “suggested we leave the house,” Payne said. “But go where? They were saying it was in the air.”

Fading hopes

After Regan returned from his Gulf Coast tour, the EPA announced that it would step up enforcement in communities of color.

The agency mobilized inspectors from its well-regarded office in Chicago, the Dallas office, its headquarters and its National Enforcement Investigations Center in Colorado. Dubbed the Pollution Accountability Team, the inspectors made surprise visits to refineries and chemical plants in the spring of 2022, using some of the agency’s most sophisticated pollution-monitoring technology.

At Lotte Chemical, a petrochemical plant in Westlake, Louisiana, EPA inspectors flagged high benzene emissions downwind of two tanks and leaking ethylene oxide, a potent carcinogen used to make antifreeze, plastics and some adhesives. They noted that Lotte hadn’t conducted tests to ensure that its flares were mostly destroying pollutants, and they found that certain flares were letting too much pollution escape into the atmosphere.

Later that spring, inspectors visited Indorama Ventures Olefins, a chemical manufacturer in the same town, and found a host of problems. Their report said the plant had failed to account for all the sources of benzene in its industrial wastewater or to monitor benzene emissions from those sources. They also noted that volatile gases, which include benzene, kept “breaking through” the carbon canisters meant to contain them. This meant the plant’s emission controls weren’t working, according to Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

There was more. Like other petrochemical plants, Indorama relies on flares to destroy waste gases such as benzene and other pollutants. But inspectors found that the plant’s main flare wasn’t burning hot enough to do this.

Despite these alleged violations, the EPA has yet to file a notice of violation against either company.

Lotte Chemical spokesman Ray Fisher said the company strives to meet local, state and federal guidelines and was complying with its permit at the time of the inspections. Fisher’s statement did not respond to a question from The Washington Post asking whether the company had made repairs to curb chemical emissions since the EPA inspectors’ visit. Indorama did not respond to a request for comment.

While some environmentalists complain about the slow pace of enforcement, EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance said her office has already made significant progress.

The EPA has opened enforcement cases alleging that a handful of Louisiana refineries and chemical plants have violated the Clean Air Act. This year, the agency settled a case against Evonik, a chemical manufacturer whose plant in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish was emitting elevated levels of ethylene oxide. The company agreed to install better pollution controls within a year and pay a $75,000 fine.

“We want people in the community to know that we are very sorry,” an Evonik spokesperson said in a statement after the settlement, adding that the company had put in place new technology “to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The agency is also working to impose new limits on toxic pollution from chemical plants that, if enforced, could cut emissions of certain carcinogens.

“I’ve relentlessly encouraged my staff to embed environmental justice in all that we do and come up with new techniques and strategies to ensure all populations of Region 6 are protected equally under the law,” Nance said in an email. “While the resulting changes from this effort have been significant, there’s more we can do, and we are not slowing down now.”

The push to go small

Because it oversees one of the nation’s largest chemical, oil and gas hubs, the EPA’s regional office in Dallas was always going to have a starring role in the administration’s efforts to cut toxic air pollution. According to current and former EPA employees, that’s a big part of the problem.

Even before Trump became president, the employees say, EPA regulators in Dallas were loath to offend their local counterparts. This deferential approach sometimes put enforcement cases in the hands of pro-business state agencies.

As more and more petrochemical plants have crowded into the Southeast, thanks to easy access to chemical feedstocks from nearby refineries, staffing at the Dallas office hasn’t kept pace, even after a Region 6 administrator asked headquarters for more staffing during the Obama administration. Although the Dallas office oversees more petrochemical plants than anywhere else in the country, EPA officials confirmed that its air toxics enforcement section has only five people certified to lead inspections of these facilities.

Even when the Dallas office is able to hire more inspectors, it struggles to retain them, according to Ford, the retired EPA inspector. Talented environmental scientists and chemical engineers can often find higher-paying jobs with oil and petrochemical companies, or sometimes elsewhere within the EPA.

“The joke is we find someone who wants to work hard, cares about the environment, and we say to each other, ‘They won’t be there long,’” an EPA employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media about this matter. “They realize what’s going on and they leave.”

Ford and two other EPA employees said Region 6’s air enforcement section chief, Steve Thompson, has also been an obstacle to aggressive enforcement. They said he has repeatedly encouraged his staff to avoid complex cases against big polluters, which often take years and require collaboration with the Justice Department. Yet these cases have the greatest deterrent effect – they can lead to multimillion-dollar settlements, requirements to cut pollution and sometimes criminal charges. Thompson prefers to go after lower-level offenses, these people said, which can be resolved administratively and boost the office’s enforcement statistics.

Thompson declined to be interviewed. EPA Region 6 spokesperson Jennah Durant defended the office’s approach in an email, saying that administrative cases “return results such as pollution reductions to the affected community more quickly.” The Dallas office and others are working “to develop a number of cases using different approaches – some that will bring quicker results, and some that will require more investigations and case development.”

As an example of what she saw as the office’s lack of urgency, Ford cited what happened when oil refineries began to report average benzene concentrations along their plant boundaries. Eleven facilities, many of them in low-income neighborhoods, disclosed benzene emissions over the EPA’s “action level.” One was off the charts. In the spring of 2019, HF Sinclair’s Navajo refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, had a benzene reading of 290 micrograms – more than 32 times the EPA’s cutoff.

The refinery’s numbers set off alarm bells in agency headquarters, according to Ford and other EPA employees – but not in Dallas where, they said, Thompson waited to act until officials in Washington forced his hand. Region 6 opened an enforcement case, and the refinery’s emissions dropped after it emptied a leaking tank. But Ford said what looks like an enforcement success story is really an indictment: “The only reason [the case] happened is because headquarters got involved and the Environmental Integrity Project wrote about it.”

HF Sinclair did not respond to a request for comment.

An inspector general’s report published this year found that from 2018 through 2021, the Artesia case was the only enforcement action the EPA took against the nine refineries with the highest benzene emissions. All but one of them were in Region 6’s territory.

If Trump were to win in 2024, environmental advocates and some agency officials fear that enforcement would further sputter.

Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who has helped communities document and fight industrial pollution, attended several of the stops along Regan’s tour and left feeling hopeful. But now she fears the same pattern that has played out for years on the Gulf Coast may be repeating itself, she said: “We put all the data together and then enforcement never happens.”

“This is what hurts. They came down, and we were of the impression they were going to do things,” Subra said. “It’s not happening, and we’re running out of this administration’s time.”