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Communities of color face disproportionate exposure to pollution

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Across the United States, communities of color face disproportionate exposure to pollution. Big polluters like refineries, factories, landfills and factory farms were routinely built in non-white communities, exposing their residents to elevated health risks as a result. Recently, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan traveled across Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to meet with communities facing extreme pollution. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL REGAN: Well, thank you so much. Glad to be here.

RASCOE: During your trip, you talked to residents, advocates, community leaders and others. What did you hear from people about how pollution is affecting their lives?

REGAN: You know, we heard a lot. I talked to moms in Jackson, Miss., whose children had been exposed to lead in drinking water, visited a school - was supposed to spend time with students discussing environmental education and what we do, but the school was evacuated shortly before we arrived because of low water pressure. I talked with families in St. John's Parish who had been exposed to pollution for decades from refineries and other sources of pollution who were dealing with cancer that spans three generations in one household. And so we really got a firsthand look at what some of these communities are dealing with and have been dealing with for quite some time.

RASCOE: One of our member station reporters, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick - she talked to one of the residents in New Orleans who you talked to during your visit. Her name is Lydwina Hurst, and she's a breast cancer survivor living on a former toxic landfill. And what she said was that she was receptive to what you had to say and that she thought you would help, but she also said this.

LYDWINA HURST: I hope that I'm not wrong again because we've had so many people to come back here and do a lot of injustice to us, which is not fair at all.

RASCOE: What's your response to that?

REGAN: You know, my response is the skepticism is well-founded. The government at many levels have not delivered for these communities. This is a significant opportunity for the federal government to partner with state government, local government and these communities on solutions that need to be acted on sooner rather than later. And so we understand that we have to rebuild trust, and now it's time for all of us to roll up our sleeves and solve these problems.

RASCOE: You talked a little bit about how skepticism may be warranted because of the way things have happened in the past. The fact is that the federal government has known about these environmental justice issues for decades. President Clinton signed an executive order to address it in 1994. President Obama renewed focus on it during his administration. But yet, these pollution disparities have persisted. Now, the Biden administration is promising to be aggressive about this, but what is going to be different now versus all of those other efforts?

REGAN: You know, what's going to be different - this administration has prioritized environmental justice, equity and inclusion. EJ will be part of the DNA of EPA. It's a core principle, and we're going to use our full enforcement authority to enforce the laws that are on the books. We're going to use the data that we have that demonstrates that certain communities have been and continue to be disproportionately impacted. But with the bipartisan infrastructure law, we now have record investments that can be made to help right some of these wrongs.

RASCOE: You mentioned the infrastructure law that just passed. The EPA, as I understand it, is allocating about $7.4 billion in 2022 from that law to help states and tribes upgrade their water infrastructure. This has been a huge issue in places like Flint, Mich., and in Mississippi. If states are going to allocate that money, though, what tools does EPA have to make sure that this money is going to these communities that need it most?

REGAN: The first thing is I've rolled up my sleeves and I am prepared to work with every governor across these 50 states, Democrat and Republican, to be sure that we're getting these resources to those who need it the most. The second is, almost half of the bipartisan infrastructure laws, nearly $44 billion in the state revolving funds, are eligible for distribution as grants or fully forgivable loans. This is not the same as previous loans that would require some sort of match or some other criteria. So now with these grants or fully forgivable loans, there are communities that are qualified that have never been qualified before.

So at EPA, we're prepared to provide technical assistance to these communities so that they have access to these funds. Couple that with a tour like Journey to Justice, where the media is highlighting these disproportionate impacts and a coordinated partnership between EPA and the governors, it really creates an opportunity for that rising tide that we're all looking for.

RASCOE: But is it still up to states to make it a priority for these communities to get these funds? Is it really going to be a situation where states could maybe overlook certain communities?

REGAN: Well, you know, we're going to encourage the states to focus on those who need it the most. And yes, there are - there's a lot of the decision-making authority that relies with the states. But as we partner with these governors, as we partner with these local mayors and these communities, as we raise awareness and bring attention to those who need it the most, we believe that the states will be positioned to respond accordingly, and it'll be our job to keep the pressure on to be sure that they do.

RASCOE: EPA administrator Michael Regan, thanks so much for being with us.

REGAN: Thank you all for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.