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Judge bars EPA from enforcing Civil Rights Act provision in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’

A federal judge on Tuesday night blocked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) from enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act’s disparate-impact requirements against Louisiana agencies.

Judge James D. Cain, a Trump appointee, ruled against residents of a stretch of parishes along the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley,” an epicenter of petrochemical manufacturing in the U.S. with disproportionately high rates of cancer.

Last year, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (R), then the state attorney general, sued the EPA to block a civil rights investigation into potential disparate impacts in the largely Black area of the state, arguing the probe exceeded statutory authority. The agency closed three civil rights complaints weeks later, but in his Tuesday ruling, Cain said existing regulations also constitute federal overreach. In the preliminary injunction, he wrote that the EPA and DOJ are barred from “imposing or enforcing any disparate impact based requirements against the State of Louisiana or any State agency under Title VI.”

Cain wrote that “pollution does not discriminate” and that “if a decision maker has to consider race, to decide [on enforcement] it has indeed participated in racism.”

Cain’s ruling comes the same day as a report from the National Minority Quality Forum, which found that 56 percent of communities of color are sited within 3 kilometers of a site producing carcinogenic waste. The town of Reserve in St. John the Baptist Parish has cancer risks about 50 times the national average.

Earthjustice, which filed the original Title VI complaint on behalf of St. John the Baptist Parish residents in 2022, blasted the ruling in a statement.

“The court’s decision to issue this injunction is bad enough, but what’s worse is that instead of fixing the discriminatory permitting programs that have created sacrifice zones like Cancer Alley, Louisiana is fighting tooth and nail to keep them in place,” said Sam Sankar, Earthjustice’s senior vice president of programs. “The public health crisis in St. John the Baptist Parish shows us why we need Title VI: EPA needs to be able to use our civil rights laws to stop states from running permitting programs that perpetuate environmental injustice.”

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