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Closed EPA probe could have meant reform for 'Cancer Alley,' documents show

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Since taking office, President Biden has pledged to deliver justice to communities who believe they are taking the brunt of environmental pollution. Many in Louisiana who live in a region known as Cancer Alley had placed their hopes in that promise. But the abrupt closure of a high-profile investigation into one of the country's largest toxic hotspots has advocates questioning whether Biden is living up to his commitment. To talk about this, Halle Parker from member station WWNO is joining us. Hi, Halle.

HALLE PARKER, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So before we get into your reporting, let's talk about what and where Cancer Alley is.

PARKER: Certainly. So Cancer Alley is actually a nickname for this big swath of Louisiana. The region stretches from New Orleans through Baton Rouge, along the Mississippi River, and it's home to more than 150 industrial plants. And residents there face some of the highest cancer and health risks in the nation due to the air pollution. And studies have actually shown it's worse for Black residents. They're exposed to levels of air pollution up to 21 times higher than their white neighbors.

FADEL: Wow. So what was at the center of this EPA investigation?

PARKER: The investigation was looking at a lot of different things, but at its core, the EPA was investigating whether Louisiana's environmental regulator - the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality - had allowed companies to build and pollute in a way that had caused disproportionate harm to these Black communities. And notably, you know, it was one of the first times the EPA was linking environmental harm to civil rights violations. And it was also the first time that the EPA had stepped in to look at what residents and environmental advocates in the area had been complaining about for decades.

FADEL: So from what you're describing, this investigation could have had historic consequences. But then the EPA's inquiry abruptly closes in June. But you didn't stop looking into it, right, Halle? You dug in to why it was shut down. So what caught your attention?

PARKER: Yeah. Well, I mean, it was just so shocking that the EPA, out of the blue, shut it all down. It blindsided everyone, you know, even the people involved in this case. So I decided to FOIA the state to see what might turn up. And we ended up getting the last version of an agreement that the EPA and the state had spent months negotiating. And obviously, you know, I'm not a lawyer, so I looked at that agreement with a legal expert, Monique Harden, and she works for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She was actually astonished by how much the agreement could have changed the situation in Louisiana if regulators hadn't walked away. It would have required Louisiana's regulators to go beyond just conducting studies and actually make decisions on permits if they reinforced racial disparities, which could include even denying them. And it was the sort of resolution environmental advocates dreamed of.

FADEL: But then it didn't come to fruition. Suddenly, this EPA case is shut down. So how are people living in Cancer Alley feeling now that they know all this?

PARKER: We still don't have a full picture of everything, like why the EPA closed the case, and that's left residents with a lot of questions. Overwhelmingly, there's this feeling of disappointment. I recently spoke with Robert Taylor. He was one of the complainants that spurred the investigation in the first place. He lives in Reserve, this small community in the middle of Louisiana's chemical corridor, and leads a group of residents called the Concerned Citizens of St. John. And he told me he was in denial at first. He felt abandoned, like a lot of other residents.

ROBERT TAYLOR: They just cut tail and ran. I'm still flabbergasted by that.

PARKER: But Taylor and others I've spoken to have made clear that they're not giving up on their fights. They just don't feel as confident that this new EPA will live up to all of its promises.

FADEL: Halle Parker is a reporter for member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks for this reporting, Halle.

PARKER: Thank you. 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.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Halle Parker