Outside the Tchoupitoulas chapel in the community of Reserve, Robert Taylor waited in the morning sun for a meeting he never thought would happen.
After years of campaigning for clean air in his south Louisiana community, a battle profiled by the Guardian for the past two years, Taylor was scheduled to meet with the federal official who holds the power to change his life: the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a change,” Taylor said just before EPA administrator Michael Regan’s black SUV pulled up over the gravel roadway. “A change in the relationship with the agencies that are supposedly there to protect us.”
The pair shook hands and walked inside, where a gathering of community members and activists planned to brief the administrator on a host of local environmental justice issues.
Reserve, a small majority Black community of 8,000 residenti, sits in the heart of Cancer Alley, the polluted strip of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge with some of the highest cancer risk rates in the US due to toxic air pollution. Some census tracts in Reserve have a cancer risk rate 50 times the national average, according to EPA data, largely as a result of chloroprene, a likely carcinogenic chemical emitted at a nearby plant run by the Japanese petrochemical firm Denka.
Throughout the Guardian’s investigative project Cancer Town, residents have articulated a sense of abandonment by local and federal politicians, government agencies e il multibillion-dollar corporations polluting the air.
Regan is the first EPA administrator to visit the town. After receiving his briefing inside the chapel and touring houses on the fenceline of the Denka plant, the administrator paused in the dappled shade of the afternoon.
“Let me be clear,” ha detto al Guardian. “I know that we have to rebuild trust. I know that this didn’t happen overnight and won’t be resolved overnight. So our commitment is to do better, leverage our enforcement, work with Congress to get the toughest laws in place that are adequate and protective. And to do this in concert with community members who have been advocating this for decades.”
Reserve was one stop on Regan’s “journey to justice” trip around the American south, visiting in-person some of the environmental justice flashpoints in a region plagued by pollution and infrastructure failures and grappling with the brunt of the climate crisis.
On Monday Regan visited Jackson, Mississippi, a majority Black city where earlier in the year thousands were left without running water for weeks after a winter storm laid waste to the city’s ailing piping and pump system. In a marker of the dysfunction in Jackson, the city was placed under another boil advisory, meaning tap water was not safe to drink, the day after the Regan’s visit.
On Wednesday Regan will visit residents of Gordon Plaza, an affordable housing development in the city of New Orleans built in the 1980s on a toxic landfill site. Di giovedì, he will visit Mossville, in Louisiana, a day after the Guardian revealed allegations of racial bias in a series of buyouts made by the South African oil giant Sasol during construction of a sprawling, multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in the town. Regan will end his trip in Houston, Texas, di venerdì, following reporting by ProPublica which revealed certain minority suburban neighborhoods in the city make up the third-biggest hotspot of cancer-causing air pollution in the country.
Martedì, Regan rode with Taylor, 79 Anni, past the Denka plant and to the fifth ward elementary school, less than a mile from the plant, where hundreds of young children learn and play. Taylor, whose wife was diagnosed with cancer and whose daughter suffers a rare autoimmune disease the family link to chloroprene, has often focused his advocacy on the plight of the children studying at the local school.
“It’s striking to hear the conversations with community members about the exorbitant amounts of cancers in their families,” said Regan. “And then you think about the children already being in harm’s way – that’s most striking to me.”
Regan, who assumed office in March, has framed the tour as a listening and experience exercise after the Biden administration said it would place environmental justice at the centre of its reform priorities. It fell the same week the US government began auctioning off more than 80m acres of oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, prompting significant criticism from climate justice advocates. The administration has argued it was compelled to hold the auction by a federal court, and claimed the sale is not aligned with the administration’s policies.
When asked by the Guardian about enforcement action he could take in Reserve, Regan remained circumspect. Community activists in the town have long argued the EPA should enforce its own lifelong exposure recommendation for chloroprene of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Air monitoring shows the plant regularly emits quantities dozens or hundreds of times above that livello.
Asked directly about this request by the Guardian, Regan replied: “We don’t want to get into too much detail because we’re in active conversations to hold everyone accountable for following the law … we have enforcement authority that we’re taking a very close look at to bring the facility into compliance. Not just this facility, but all of the facilities across the country who have been non-compliant.”
The administrator’s presence in the small town, still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Ida, drew residents from their homes as a convoy of media drove down the usually quiet streets, blocking off traffic.
“I don’t mind if you block my driveway, if it helps stop that poison in the air,” said one resident as she watched the cars pass by.
Lydia Gerard, another community organizer in Reserve, lost her husband to cancer that she blames on the plant. She also expressed hope that the visit was the beginning of a new era of accountability.
“I’m happy that he’s here, and hopefully he’s listened to what we’re saying. E, like he said, it’s not just a photo-op. Hopefully he’ll take what we’re saying back, and help us get things done," lei disse.
Taylor too felt a sense of cautious optimism.
“We know he’s not a miracle worker,” Taylor said. “But in five years we’ve never had this response. We’ve just got to wait and see.”