From iWatch News:

Three years into Lisa Jackson’s tenure as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than a dozen formal complaints alleging air pollution is disproportionately harming low-income, minority communities remain unresolved. Each of these complaints has languished — in some instances, for more than a decade — in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights despite Jackson’s stated commitment to environmental justice.

“We must include environmental justice principles in all of our decisions … especially with regard to children,” Jackson wrote in a January 2010 memo outlining the agency’s top priorities.

But EPA documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and interviews with activists and residents reveal that the administrator’s words have brought little relief to underprivileged communities overburdened with pollution.

The Office of Civil Rights — whose leader reports directly to Jackson — has in its files a total of 38 unresolved complaints dating to July 1994, according to a list published on the office’s website following a Freedom of Information Act request from iWatch News. Fifteen of these OCR complaints involve air pollution.

The EPA did not explain why so many cases remain unresolved. However, a spokeswoman said in an email that “the Agency has made meaningful progress on many of the complaints that remain on its docket.”

Environmental justice advocates are dubious. “The backlog doesn’t seem greatly improved, and it’s not clear what processes they use to evaluate the complaints” said Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. “Why is that progress?”

Poverty and pollution

Tammy Foster, a 39-year-old housewife turned environmental activist from Corpus Christi, Texas, has had several miscarriages in the 17 years that a complaint alleging discrimination in her community has been pending at OCR. Doctors don’t know why she’s been unable to conceive, she said. “If I had to guess, I’d say living on Refinery Row,” a 10-mile stretch of oil refineries and other industrial plants.

Foster blames emissions from the plants that border the Dona Park neighborhood on three sides for a birth defect that causes her to average four kidney infections per year and for regular outbreaks of hives and blisters. “When I’m gone, I feel great,” she said.

Dona Park, where Foster has lived most of her life, is about 70 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 census. The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey found that about a quarter of all families in the community live below the poverty line.

In Ford Heights, Ill., a solidly African-American exurb of Chicago, about 40 percent of all families are in poverty, according to the American Community Survey. In April 2006, residents filed a complaint — still unresolved by OCR — against the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for failing to act on Geneva Energy, LLC, which bought a tire-burning power plant located only blocks from a community center that housed a preschool program.

The plant has operated intermittently due to financial and environmental problems that include a long list of air pollution violations. “The only way that you would know [it was running] is that the smoke was in the air,” said Melva Smith-Weaver, who worked at the Head Start program in Ford Heights until 2007.

”There was quite a few children during that time that were asthmatic. You would expect to have out of 102 kids, one or two that are asthmatic, but we had quite a few — maybe 15 to 20.” In 2009, the preschool program moved to new location about a mile away, but middle school students still attend classes just down the road from the plant.

“This facility is clean and safe for the surrounding community,” said Geneva Energy CEO Ben Rose. He acknowledged the air pollution violations but said “there is little evidence that plants such as ours increase asthma attacks.” Rose said it’s “outrageous that this complaint wasn’t addressed immediately” by OCR.

Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin agreed. In an October letter to Jackson, he noted that Geneva Energy is the city’s biggest private employer and taxpayer. “This could have been dismissed after a brief investigation, lifting the cloud of uncertainty from the facility,” Griffin wrote.

The Corpus Christi and Ford Heights complaints are among at least 15 Clean Air Act cases pending with OCR; three of these cases date to the 1990s. Twenty-three other pending complaints allege violations of laws governing water pollution, toxic waste and pesticides.

More.

Image from Flickr.

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