Love Canal mom says EPA just gave polluters a license to kill
Residents observe the fire consuming the TPC Group plant on Nov. 27, 2019, in Port Neches, Texas. Two massive explosions 13 hours apart tore through the chemical plant, leaving several workers injured. The EPA has announced it is suspending enforcement actions against polluters. | Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Chronicle via AP

Our government just told polluters they are free to pump deadly chemicals into our air and water. That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suspended all enforcement indefinitely until the COVID-19 crisis is over.

This terrifies me. I know firsthand that giving polluters free rein will cost thousands, even millions, of lives.

As a young mother in Niagara Falls, New York, in the 1970s, I watched toxic chemicals bubble up through our lawns, poisoning our children. When my neighbors and I discovered that our neighborhood, Love Canal, was built on a toxic waste dump, our advocacy led to the creation of the first Superfund site by Congress in 1980.

Today, the EPA acknowledges more than 40,000 Superfund communities across the United States—from rural areas to major cities like Birmingham and Detroit—that are already polluted with toxic air and water from industrial sites. At these sites, at least, the government has required polluters to contribute to cleanup.

But there are tens of thousands more communities not yet on this list, where the pollution continues unabated. These are known as “sacrifice zones”—places where the health of residents is permanently sacrificed to industrial contamination.

Already, 36% of all school-age children—over 19.6 million—live in sacrifice zones. But if the EPA abandons its oversight of polluting industries now, this number of dangerously uninhabitable communities will grow exponentially. Many more people will die.

In short, the EPA just gave polluters a license to kill.

On March 26, the EPA said it will not “seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations” from polluters until further notice. This came days after the American Petroleum Institute sent a 10-page letter to the EPA, asking them to suspend enforcement.

In this Dec. 21, 1978 file photo, Lois Gibbs, president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, makes adjustments to a Christmas tree trimmed with decorations naming some of the chemicals found in the Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. She now says the EPA’s decision to halt enforcement actions gives polluters a “license to kill.” | AP

And while the EPA now claims the pandemic is the reason, this change has been coming for months. Last November, they rolled back requirements that companies take safety measures to prevent chemical releases, calling these regulations “burdensome,” “costly,” and “unnecessary.”

If we told drivers there are no more traffic rules, most would still do the right thing and drive safely. But a handful will drive drunk, blow through stop signs, and run over pedestrians. A few scofflaws make our country a much more dangerous place.

That’s especially true in sacrifice zones where residents are being told to shelter in place because of COVID-19—they can’t leave. Often this may apply to communities they had previously been told were toxic.

Imagine how a shelter in place order must feel to people like Eddie Ramirez.

He’s one of the 60,000 Texans who were ordered to leave—then return, and stay home—after a petrochemical plant explosion in Port Neches last November released dangerous amounts of butadiene, which causes nervous system damage. After Eddie returned home, authorities realized dangerous chemicals were still in the air, so they ordered residents to evacuate a second time.

TCP Group, the Houston-based petrochemical company that owns the Port Neches plant, had to pay more than $378,000 in penalties for more violations last year. If the EPA suspends even minimal penalties like these, polluters have no incentive to do the right thing.

Dozens of refinery fires and factory explosions emit toxic chemicals into the environment every year. If we remove penalties and enforcement, there will be more.

And right now, because of COVID-19 and our government’s refusal to protect our environment, the residents of sacrifice zones like Port Neches are like sitting ducks. They have no place to go. It is our responsibility to keep them safe.

Institute for Policy Studies – OtherWords


Lois Gibbs
Lois Gibbs

Lois Gibbs is an environmental activist. A primary organizer of the Love Canal Homeowners Association in the 1970s, Gibbs brought public attention to the environmental crisis in Love Canal, a neighborhood built on a toxic waste dump. Her actions resulted in the evacuation of over 800 families and led to the creation of the first Superfund site by Congress in 1980. Gibbs is founder of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ).