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The EPA Is Finally Getting Serious About Protecting Poor Communities

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed a ground-breaking rule requiring industry-wide monitoring of emissions at petroleum refineries. The new regulations, which the agency says will reduce pollution by 5,200 tons per year and lower cancer risk for 1.4 million people, mark a turning point in the agency's spotty record on environmental justice. 

The EPA has long been criticized for ignoring the disproportionate impact of environmental issues upon minorities and the poor. But in its 745-page ruling this week, the agency specifically focused on "environmental justice populations"—groups that often live close to refineries and are most heavily affected by the resulting pollution. Until now, the EPA did not require monitoring at refinery fences, but the new ruling will place between 12 and 24 monitors at each distillery. According to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, the regulation is designed to create "refineries that are better neighbors" to the communities that skirt their boundaries. If the mandate is properly implemented, local residents will be able to access a database to see whether dangerous levels of pollutants have passed from refinery barriers into their communities.

“This rule is one of EPA’s first to include an environmental justice analysis," said environmental justice activist Hilton Kelley, who has fought for regulation of petrochemical and waste facilities in Texas. According to Jesse Marquez, founder of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, the new regulations should enable communities to better understand their air and any health issues associated with it. “Our community is elated,” he said of Wilmington, Los Angeles, a low-income, majority-Latino neighborhood that sits in the shadow of four refineries. “We did not get everything we asked for. … But this is the first major step in that direction.”

These regulations further demonstrate the EPA's renewed dedication to environmental justice under the Obama administration. Since becoming EPA administrator in July 2013, McCarthy has made pointed attempts to incorporate environmental justice as a talking point and issued the draft EJ 2020 plan, which intends to include environmental justice in rulemaking and increase dialogue with affected communities. Now, these commitments are seeing action. 

“The EPA’s recognition that communities need to know the amount of cancer-causing pollution in their air around refineries will be a defining part of this administration’s legacy on air pollution and environmental justice,” said Emma Cheuse, an attorney with environmental law organization EarthJustice.

But the new mandate should not be considered a complete success. Next comes a formidable challenge, one the EPA has historically struggled with: implementation. The overburdened agency only managed to pass this regulation a day before its court-ordered deadline. It's likely the new refinery rule will take years to be fully implemented.

"The test ultimately, is whether communities get the relief they need when the monitoring shows the pollution does go too high at that fence-line," Cheuse said. “In terms of long term goals, there’s no question that EPA has more work to do."