Series: Sacrifice Zones
Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution
Two days after ProPublica published a first-of-its-kind analysis of industrial air pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that its administrator, Michael S. Regan, would visit the communities featured in our reporting. During last week’s “Journey to Justice” trip across the South, Regan toured the Houston ship channel, the Louisiana community of Mossville and a stretch of land along the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley — places that we identified as among the largest hot spots of toxic air pollution in the country. Environmental advocates who hosted several different parts of the tour told ProPublica that they first received calls about the visit in late October, two weeks after we sent the EPA questions about their areas’ elevated cancer risk. Longtime residents believed it was the first time that the nation’s top environmental regulator visited Mossville and Cancer Alley.
Our investigation exposed significant flaws in how the EPA protects vulnerable neighborhoods from hazardous air pollution. We identified more than a thousand hot spots of cancer-causing air across the country and found that, on average, census tracts where the majority of residents are Black experience more than double the level of cancer risk from toxic air pollution as majority-white tracts.
In an interview, Regan told ProPublica that he appreciated the urgency that the newsroom’s reporting brings to the EPA’s ongoing efforts to address environmental inequities. He said that his team has consulted our analysis as they reconsider how to tackle industrial pollution across the nation.
“We’ve looked very carefully at your reporting and we’re incorporating much of it into our refined and revised system ourselves as well, so that we can begin to address these issues,” Regan said. “We’re working on just how we can do that in a way that gives us the ability to move forward, set standards, enforce existing laws and do it in a manner where we believe that it is legally and scientifically defensible. One of the reasons I’m on the road for five days is to be on the ground, listening directly to these communities and taking this information back. This is an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
On Thursday, the same day that Regan visited Mossville, dozens of EPA staffers across national and regional offices discussed their plan to examine hot spots identified by ProPublica’s investigation. Federal staffers separately conferred about the agency’s state-of-the-art air modeling tool, which pinpoints the human health risks from toxic emissions and which we reported that the EPA has underused.
The administrator’s caravan charted a penitent itinerary along the Gulf Coast, calling on communities of color that the EPA has historically failed to protect. On front porches and in churches, Regan listened to residents share stories about how government officials had ignored their concerns for decades. Many of the people he met had lost family members to cancers that they linked to the dangerous chemicals in the air. “It’s just not credible in this day and time to pretend that industry hasn’t taken many communities hostage and surrounded some communities,” Regan told an audience in Houston.
In Cancer Alley, Regan stopped by Michael Coleman’s home, which is nestled between a grain elevator, an oil refinery and a railroad — and lies near a handful of massive chemical plants. ProPublica’s analysis demonstrated how the EPA underestimates the cancer risk faced in neighborhoods like Coleman’s, because the agency examines the dangers of most facilities in isolation from one another. This narrow approach means that the full health impacts from air pollution — what’s known as the cumulative risk — is often invisible to regulators and residents. When ProPublica asked about whether the EPA plans to consider cumulative risk, Regan said that the EPA intends to be “very creative and entrepreneurial” to address the issue, including by working with Congress to clarify its legal authority.
Down the road from Coleman’s home is the Fifth Ward Elementary School, which educates about 400 students and sits on a block where the estimated additional cancer risk from toxic air is 1 in 1,600, according to our analysis, or six times the EPA’s upper threshold for acceptable risk. The EPA sets the upper limit of acceptable lifetime excess cancer risk at 1 in 10,000 — meaning that if 10,000 people are living in an area, there’d likely be one additional case of cancer over a lifetime of exposure. Experts told ProPublica this threshold does not sufficiently safeguard public health.
When asked whether the agency will reconsider this limit, Regan said, “The honest answer is we have to reevaluate the way we’ve been approaching diagnosing these problems. If EPA, the federal government, state governments and local governments had been doing things correctly, we wouldn't be here. There’s obviously a problem with the way we have implemented our laws and, quite frankly, there may be a problem with the existing law. We need to determine whether even existing law, if followed, is protective enough.”
In response to ProPublica’s questions about the immediate next steps the agency plans to take to protect overburdened communities, Regan pledged to ramp up the agency’s enforcement activities. “When we see these disparate impacts occurring, we have to put in more monitoring, and we have to increase our inspections,” he said. “Where we see companies out of compliance, we have to increase our enforcement. This is not just a feeling or something that we’re sensing. The data is there.”
Emma Cheuse, an attorney and air toxics expert at the advocacy group Earthjustice, characterized the administrator’s remarks as momentous. “It’s been a long time since we heard an administrator of the EPA personally respond to communities, acknowledge what they’re going through and say that he is working on concrete next steps to make their lives better,” she said. “His recognition of the need for the EPA to transform its approach and finally protect communities will mean a lot if the agency walks the walk.”
Mustafa Ali, who worked on environmental justice at the EPA for over 20 years, applauded Regan’s strong commitment to reevaluating the EPA’s policies in the wake of ProPublica’s investigation, adding that he and his colleagues had been trying for decades to raise greater awareness of the issues laid out in our reporting. “During all of the years that myself and others did this work, there were very little resources to be able to do it,” said Ali, who is currently a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation. “Now the administrator is promising to act.”
On a cloudy Thursday morning, Regan boarded a bus with current and former residents of Mossville, a historically Black community that has been subsumed over decades by the steady expansion of more than a dozen chemical companies. Hundreds of families used to live in Mossville, which was founded by formerly enslaved people. Now locals say around 50 households remain. They wanted Regan to see what was left of their neighborhood.
The bus set off along the fence line that separates the road from an industrial complex owned by Sasol, a South African chemical firm. Sasol’s recent build-out prompted many of the area's residents to accept the company’s controversial offer to buy their homes.
“Mr. Regan, I’m going to show you how vast this place is,” said Carolyn Peters, a special education teacher and president of Concerned Citizens of Mossville. “So remember where we are starting.” She wore an auburn T-shirt printed with the group’s name and logo, which features an illustration of Pete Moss and his wife riding a horse-drawn wagon — a nod to the descendants of the area’s founding family and preindustrial roots.
“It completely changed the skyline,” said Peggy Anthony, who grew up in Mossville and later moved near Washington, D.C., where she worked for many years in the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. She was seated next to her brother, Stafford Frank, who was pointing out the former locations of the neighborhood’s school, stores and streets. “I want you to imagine what it was like when it was really Mossville,” Peters told Regan. “It was beautiful.” The view from the bus’ tinted windows was dominated by the hulking expanse of the Sasol campus, with its skeletal spires and gleaming metal tubes looming out of the fog.
“In this area, there are about 15 different chemical and industrial plants,” Frank said. “It’s not just Sasol that’s come in on top of Mossville.” He rattled off their names and acronyms, while Peters nodded along.
“We’re surrounded,” she said. “And no one has helped us get out of this place.”
In an emailed statement, Sasol spokesperson Sarah Hughes said that “Sasol is proud of our engagement with our neighbors in Mossville and the positive impact it has had on many of its residents.” She added that the company’s property buyout stemmed from direct requests from Mossville residents and that the company offered owners more than the appraised value of their homes.
After driving along the facility’s perimeter for 10 minutes, the bus swung left. “All of this is still Sasol,” Peters told Regan, as they traveled along another fence line. “Remember when you first started seeing it?”
Members of the Concerned Citizens of Mossville directed the driver to stop beside a white hut with a brown roof, which housed an air monitoring station operated by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
“That’s the monitor right in there,” Peters said, gesturing to the structure. “I want you to understand that when the monitor was placed here, Sasol wasn’t here. It wasn’t this huge. But now that they are, it makes it appear that they have it placed this close.”
“So, this is the only monitor for the town?” Regan asked.
“Correct,” Peters nodded.
Kimberly Terrell, a staff scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, explained to Regan that the monitor does not meet the EPA’s standards. Because the station is not measuring enough of the right things at the right time, she said, it fails to present an accurate picture of pollution levels.
Regan turned to address the small crowd that had gathered outside the hut. “Being on the ground here, seeing it for myself and talking with the community members, it’s just startling that we got to this point,” Regan said. “And the question really is — for all of us as federal, state and local government officials — what are we going to do moving forward?”
As Regan spoke, a large flame danced behind a metal grate across the street, shooting plumes of smoke into the sky. The administrator said that he had a lot of questions that he wanted to take back to the state of Louisiana and locally elected officials. He acknowledged that communities were right to be skeptical of the government, given its legacy of failing to heed their calls. Pressed on next steps, he said that he wanted his staff to examine how much enforcement authority the agency might be able to apply to the scenario. “I don’t want to get ahead of my skis,” Regan said. “But I can tell you I’m paying attention.”
Regan’s “Journey to Justice” tour, which the EPA said it had planned for months, was intended to signal a new era for the agency. During the previous four years, the Trump administration slashed the agency’s funding and scuttled hundreds of environmental protections. Regan, who once worked as an EPA intern, has likened his role to reversing the course of a massive ship. Though he cautioned that some policy changes would not happen overnight, he emphasized that his agency was ready to “set sail.”
“Some would say, ‘Well, you put yourself out there, and that means you have to move the ball forward and you will be held accountable,’” he said at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. “I’m fully aware that we will be held accountable. That’s what we’re in public service for.”
John Walke, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former EPA lawyer, said that he welcomed Regan’s recent remarks as a “radical change in tone and focus that we hope will deliver actual changes in the real world.” But for the EPA to honor its administrator’s words, he continued, “the agency will have to act in a significantly different manner than it has to date. We are approaching the end of Biden’s first year in office, and the EPA’s policies regarding air toxics and cumulative risk are still essentially the same as the Trump administration’s.”
President Biden has vowed to make racial and environmental equity a centerpiece of his agenda. Within his first few days in office, he established two White House councils to address environmental injustices and directed the government to spend 40% of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities like the ones spotlighted by the EPA’s tour. The same day that Regan traveled through Texas — a state increasingly battered by climate-change-related disasters — the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better bill, which steers hundreds of billions of dollars toward environmental and climate justice.
During the administrator’s visit to Cancer Alley, Monique Harden, assistant director of law and policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, called for the EPA to pursue environmental justice by confronting civil rights violations. While greater enforcement might lessen emissions from some polluters, she said, it would do little to reduce the legally permitted concentrations of chemicals that people near industrial facilities are forced to breathe each day. To safeguard the rights of Black residents and people with disabilities who disproportionately live in these heavily polluted areas, she said, “a suite of civil rights protections need to be brought to bear in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley and communities across the country where there’s environmental racism.”
The communities that Regan visited face a range of challenges, but residents of each conveyed to him the same sense of urgency. “This is an emergency situation,” said Peggy Anthony, who toured Mossville with Regan. “You have monitors that are stationed in places that are very questionable and you’ve got emissions that are just out of control.” Sharon Lavigne, who leads the advocacy group RISE St. James, has asked the administrator to shut down the operations of plants that significantly threaten human health.
Walke and other environmental advocates said that the EPA already has the legal authority to immediately address the health risks experienced by residents on the tour and highlighted by ProPublica’s analysis. Regan’s trip to Cancer Alley “was done out of commitment and leadership,” Walke said. “The most important question, however, is when he gets back to Washington, will he exercise leadership to adopt cumulative risk practices and protect Americans from cancer risks greater than one in a million?”
“The stories have moved the ball forward in terms of what the public understands and what the EPA can’t ignore,” Cheuse said, referring to ProPublica’s reporting. “The measure of this administration’s success on environmental justice will be, in part, whether the EPA does right by the communities in St. John, St. James, Houston and everywhere he has visited on this tour.”
After the morning bus ride, Regan met privately with around a dozen members of the Concerned Citizens of Mossville inside a Baptist church. Carolyn Peters told her neighbors that she could not stop smiling. “I love how attentive he is,” she said.
Raphael Sias Jr., a home health aide who owns a home in Mossville, told the administrator about the book he’d been writing, titled “To Uncle Sam: Thanks For Nothing.” It’s “about how the government, who is Uncle Sam, is supposed to take care of us and protect us from things like this, and they’re not,” Sias Jr. said. “We are known around the world, but the government hasn’t stopped this. This should be their fight, not ours.”
Veteran environmental activist Christine Bennett, who grew up in Mossville, lost eight of her family members to illnesses that she attributes to “living in a chemical cocktail.” She’s traveled across the United States to speak about pollution. During her meeting with Regan, she asked him for the same things she’d already asked of so many government officials: a health clinic, a memorial, restitution from industry for the lost value of Mossville’s homes and funding for relocation.
Her husband, Delma Bennett, said that Regan told them he was “taking this to heart and hearing everything we are saying.”
“But we’ve met with so many of them over the years,” Christine Bennett replied. “All we do is be heard.”