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EPA Slow to Probe Bias Claims, Groups Say

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Federal regulators ignored their duty to investigate a decade's worth of environmental conditions such as landfills that especially affect minority and poor communities, the Sierra Club claims in Federal Court.

Enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act, Title VI prohibits programs that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color and national origin.

In a July 15 complaint, five groups and one of their officials point to administrative complaints they filed with the Environmental Protection Agency between 1994 and 2003, concerning the ongoing operation of hazardous waste dumps and other pollution-spewing facilities in low-income and minority communities in Michigan, California, Texas, New Mexico and Alabama.

Though federal law requires the EPA to issue preliminary findings and recommendations within 180 days of receiving such complaints, Sierra Club and the others complain that "EPA has utterly failed to meet this deadline in each case."

The Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center say they filed the first complaint in 1994, saying a Michigan agency had failed to consider how a wood-burning power plant in Flint would affect the community's primarily black residents.

The EPA allegedly should have issued preliminary findings by July 1995, but 20 years later, no action has taken place, according to the complaint.

Californians for Renewable Energy and its president, Michael Boyd, say they lodged a complaint in April 2000 over the construction of two power plants in Pittsburg, Calif., where most residents were nonwhite and low-income.

The EPA accepted that complaint in December 2001 but has yet to issue findings or recommendations in violation of its mandate, according to the complaint.

Sierra Club says its Lone Star Chapter complained in April 2000 as well about an ExxonMobil oil refinery permitted to increase emissions in Beaumont, Texas, where 95 percent of the affected population was black.

The EPA accepted that complaint in June 2003 but still hasn't issued any findings or recommendations, according to the suit.

Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping allegedly complained about the approval of a hazardous waste dump in Chaves County, New Mexico, in September 2002.

In addition to claiming that the state failed to consider the dump's impact on the Hispanic community, the group says the "hostile" permitting process excluded members of the public since relevant documents were not provided in Spanish.

"The county has a high percentage of people living in poverty and already suffers worse air quality and higher rates of infant mortality, congenital abnormalities and hospitalization for respiratory illnesses than any other counties in the state," the complaint states.

In December 2003, the Ashurst Bar/Smith Community Organization complained about the approval of a landfill in Tallassee, Ala. Noting that most of the county's solid-waste landfills are located in primarily black communities, the group says Alabama failed to ensure the placement of the dump was nondiscriminatory.

Residents now must deal with "putrid smells that on some days can travel up to three miles from the landfill, and vultures and other pests that are attracted to the landfill," according to the complaint.

The EPA allegedly accepted that complaint 10 years after it was filed in January 2013 and has since missed its deadline to issue findings and recommendations.

Each group alleges violations of the Administrative Procedure Act.

They are represented by Jonathan Smith of Earthjustice, who said in an interview that the EPA has never provided a valid explanation as to why "something that should take 180 days" has taken 10 years or longer with no foreseeable resolution.

"We feel 10, and in some instances, 20 years to investigate these complaints is definitely not timely and not a valid way for the EPA to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title VI," Smith said.

The plaintiffs want a federal judge to find that the EPA failed to meet its duty, to compel the EPA to issue findings and recommendations within 90 days.

EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Colaizzi said the EPA is unable to comment on ongoing litigation.

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