E.P.A. Chief Vows to ‘Do Better’ to Protect Poor Communities

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WASHINGTON — Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, traveled to Jackson, Miss., in November to discuss the city’s poor water quality at an elementary school where children have to drink bottled water and use portable restrooms outside the building.

The day he arrived, the halls were largely empty. Students had been sent home because the water pressure at the school was so low that even the portable toilets couldn’t flush.

That scene and others he witnessed as he traveled to low-income communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere have prompted him to make some changes, he said.

On Wednesday the E.P.A. announced that it will step up monitoring and enforcement of federal rules regarding air and water quality, particularly in communities of color, which are disproportionately burdened by pollution.

“Seeing the situation for myself, talking directly to community members, it is startling where we get to this point — the point where children miss school days because the water isn’t safe,” Mr. Regan said. He called the environmental conditions he had witnessed in many parts of the nation “unacceptable in the United States of America.”

President Biden has made addressing racial disparities, including those related to the environment, a core part of his agenda. He convened an advisory council made up of some of the pioneers in the environmental justice movement. He instructed agencies to incorporate environmental justice into decision making. And he pledged that disadvantaged communities would receive at least 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy programs.

But recently Mr. Biden’s top environmental justice appointee, Cecilia Martinez, and another appointee, David Kieve, who had conducted outreach with environmental justice groups for the White House, both left their posts.

The departures have prompted concerns about the future of Mr. Biden’s environmental justice agenda.

Mr. Regan did not address the issue directly on Tuesday in a call with reporters, but he said he felt an obligation to marginalized communities where “folks have been waiting long enough” for federal attention. He has spent the last year touring towns and meeting with community members as part of what the E.P.A. has called his Journey to Justice tour.

“I pledge to do better by people in communities who have been hurting for far too long,” Mr. Regan said.

The agency will increase unannounced inspections to keep polluting industries “on their toes,” Mr. Regan said, asserting that the Trump administration had not conducted enough such inspections. Monitoring of polluting industries fell off sharply in March 2020 when the Trump administration said those industries would not be held responsible if the pandemic made it difficult to comply with federal limits on air and water pollution or requirements to manage hazardous waste or ensure safe drinking water.

A spokesman for the United States Chamber of Commerce, which represents major businesses, declined to comment on the announcement. Senators Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, both Republicans of Louisiana, where Mr. Regan said he would concentrate some of the agency’s new compliance and monitoring, also did not respond to requests for comment.

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Among the changes announced Wednesday, the E.P.A. said it would increase the number of air pollution inspectors and use novel monitoring methods like a new aircraft that uses sensors and software to detect emissions in real time.

Robert Taylor, 81, a lifelong resident of St. John Parish, La., and leader of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, became emotional as he described Mr. Regan’s visit to the region known as “cancer alley” because of high rates of illness, especially among Black and low-income communities near petrochemical plants.

“We had been so downtrodden and beaten down by our efforts to try to protect ourselves, and we were being attacked by those who were supposed to protect us,” Mr. Taylor said.

In St. James Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish, the E.P.A. plans to start pilot air monitoring projects and make the data available to the public. It is also earmarking $600,000 for mobile air pollution monitoring equipment to be deployed in those parishes.

The agency has also required the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in St. James Parish to install monitors along its “fence line” to identify the source of emissions on its site. The plant uses the chemical chloroprene to make the synthetic rubber known as Neoprene, and residents have long complained that pollution from the plant has caused health problems including breathing difficulties and cancer.

The company complied, E.P.A. said. Denka could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

In Jackson, Miss., a majority Black city where residents have suffered from contaminated drinking water as well as chronic water outages, Mr. Regan said the E.P.A. had issued a notice of noncompliance to the city for failing to repair equipment to ensure safe drinking water in a “timely matter.”

The Rev. James Caldwell, the founder and director of the Coalition of Community Organizations, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Houston, said “actually showing up, coming in to our communities to see, to breathe and to smell what we’ve been talking about for years,” was a major first step for an E.P.A. administrator.