SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency improperly delayed investigating pollution-spewing dumps and power plants that disproportionately impact minority communities, a federal judge ruled Monday.
“The court recognized that the EPA has a duty to timely rule on civil rights claims before it, and that it egregiously violated that duty in these instances,” Earthjustice lawyer Suzanne Novak said.
Novak represents Californians for Renewable Energy and four other groups that sued the EPA in July 2015, claiming the agency ignored a decade’s worth of complaints about environmental racism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The groups submitted five complaints between 1994 and 2005 about landfills, power plants and oil refineries that spew air pollution and cause health problems in low-income and minority areas in Michigan, California, Texas, New Mexico and Alabama.
Federal law requires the EPA take action on such complaints within 180 days, but the plaintiffs say the agency let complaints languish for 10 to 20 years or more.
“The Court finds that the EPA’s failure to issue preliminary findings or recommendations and any recommendations for voluntary compliance constitutes agency action unlawfully withheld,” Senior U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong wrote in a 40-page ruling.
Armstrong rejected the EPA’s arguments that the case is moot because the agency resolved all five complaints after the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit.
“It is well documented that the EPA has been sued repeatedly for failing to investigate Title VI complaints in a timely manner,” Armstrong wrote.
The judge found an injunction requiring the EPA to respond more quickly to the plaintiffs’ future complaints is an appropriate remedy.
However, the judge dismissed claims that EPA has a “pattern and practice” of delaying probes into environmental bias. Plaintiffs can only sue the EPA for specific actions it took or failed to take under the Administrative Procedure Act, Brown concluded.
The judge ordered both sides to submit a proposed judgment that will require the EPA to process the plaintiffs’ complaints in a timely manner in the future.
Novak said she is not certain how far into the future EPA will be subject to the injunction. She added that her clients will work with the EPA to draw up details for the injunction. If they can’t agree, they will have to go back to the judge for a resolution.
The plaintiffs had filed complaints over a wood-burning power plant in Flint, Michigan in 1994; two power plants in Pittsburg, California in 2000; an oil refinery in Beaumont, Texas in 2000; a hazardous waste dump in Chavez County, New Mexico in 2002; and solid-waste landfill in Tallassee, Alabama in 2003.
Novak said it took 25 years for the EPA to issue a finding of discrimination in the approval of a wood-burning power plant in a largely African American community in Flint, Michigan.
“It would have been very helpful to have that finding 25 years ago,” Novak said.
The U.S. Department of Justice and EPA did not immediately return emails seeking comment Monday afternoon.
Other plaintiffs in the case include Sierra Club, Ashurst Bar/Smith Community Organization, Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, Saint Francis Prayer Center, and Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, which was terminated as a plaintiff in 2016.