Energy & Environment

EPA announces plans to tackle environmental justice issues in Texas and other Southern states

In November, the top EPA official visited neighborhoods in Houston that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution, as part of a week-long environmental justice tour through the South. Now, new initiatives aim to address what he saw.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
EPA Administrator Michael Regan heard from environmental justice advocates with the group TEJAS in Baytown’s Unidad Park, during his week-long environmental justice trip in the south.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a series of new initiatives Wednesday morning to address environmental justice issues in Texas and other Southern states.

The new measures include a series of broad reforms across the region, such as expanding air monitoring programs and ramping up unannounced inspections of polluting facilities, in addition to specific actions for each of the places he visited.

Wednesday’s announcement follows EPA Administrator Michael Regan's week-long trip through the south in November, which included a stop in Houston.

During a press call with reporters before the announcement, Regan finding a solution to those problems would require “a sense of urgency” going forward.

"Being on the ground, and seeing the situation for myself, talking directly with community members, it is startling that we got to this point," Regan said. “Generations of people have been sickened by the water that they drink and the air that they breathe.”

Regan said when he was in Houston residents voiced concerns about ethylene oxide pollution.

The chemical is a known carcinogen used to sterilize medical equipment and also to make other products such as antifreeze and polyester. Three of the top five polluters of ethylene oxide are located in Texas, according to an analysis of EPA data by Bloomberg Law.

But Texas is the only state to officially reject the EPA's analysis of the chemical, considering it to be significantly less harmful than the federal government's findings.

“EPA will start the process of formally rejecting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's less protective risk value for ethylene oxide and instead reaffirm EPA peer-reviewed 2016 findings,” Regan said. “We are leading with the best available science to reduce emissions of this chemical and better protect the community's health.”

While regulations for ethylene oxide are in development, Regan said the agency is looking into other approaches to reduce emissions.

In addition to addressing ethylene oxide pollution in Texas, the agency will be submitting comments to the TCEQ laying out its concerns and recommendations regarding the clean-up of creosote contamination in Fifth Ward. The agency will also partner with Houston-based environmental justice group TEJAS to improve translation and interpretation services when it comes to providing information on environmental risk and enforcement, the administrator said.

Rev. James Caldwell, a Fifth Ward resident and founder of the environmental group Coalition of Community Organizations, said he appreciated that Regan actually took to the time to visit with residents in Houston.

“Being able to not just hear, but to see, to breathe, and to smell what we’ve been talking about for years, if not decades, and taking the stand to actually do some actions,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of conversation about issues that are of our concern, especially environmental concerns here in Houston, but we haven’t had that action attached to it.”

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