Strong odors, swarms of bugs
In Baton Rouge, residents of the University Place subdivision have not given up on the EPA’s civil-rights office — yet. Viewing theirs as a classic struggle against environmental discrimination, they have pressed the agency for help — again and again — in recent years.
“I wanted EPA to do its job,’” said Gregory Mitchell, the lead community activist, explaining why he and as many as 312 other residents have signed on to the Title VI complaints.
When the North sewage plant began operating in 1960, the structure was barely visible to its neighbors. Over the years, the city has transformed it into an industrial complex stretching for blocks, separated from houses by a two-lane road. As the plant grew larger, community staples faded. A ballpark was closed, a community store shuttered. In their place came the flies and the stench.
State records document the hazards.
In 1998, a memo from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals detailed “strong odors” coming from the sewage plant, and “filter flies nesting all under carport walls and side entrance door” at Mamie Mitchell’s house adjacent the sewage plant. In 2009, the same department documented, again, “flies on the windows, around the doors, and on the walls under the carport.”
The problem was so bad, Mitchell said, that the city used to supply her with air fresheners and boxes of bug killers. Still, the swarms kept coming, fouling the outdoor calm she said she found when she moved to the house in 1972.
By the time she and other residents turned to the EPA’s civil-rights office six years ago, they had long since sued the city. Their lawsuit, filed in 1996, was stuck in the courts for more than a decade. It ended in 2010 with a ruling that the plaintiffs were not entitled to recover personal-injury damages.
Clean Water Act litigation filed by the residents and a local environmental group eventually yielded some relief, helping to lay the groundwork for a city vote in 2013 to relocate some away from the sewage plant and to create a “buffer” area, a process that is ongoing.
All the while, residents have pushed the EPA for help. Gregory Mitchell did not sit idly as the civil-rights office weighed his requests for action, and then dismissed them starting in 2010. He peppered regulators with constant pleas.
“We the citizens/I would like an update on the status of the civil rights and EJ [environmental justice] paper work which has been in your office for a very long time,” he wrote in May 2012.
An agency official asked him to include the EPA file number with his emails. Mitchell did so that June, and added another plea. “We have been in constant contact with your office over the years,” he wrote. “We consent again to your office to do what is needed, because our civil rights and EJ rights are continuing to be violated.”
A day later, June 6, 2012, Mitchell asked for a written status update. “Please detail what your office has done, is doing, and will continue to do,” he wrote. “Our community is still suffering.”
Another official told him his latest complaint was still under jurisdictional review, meaning the agency was considering whether to open an investigation. By August of 2012, plant critics’ patience was wearing thin.
“Why is this office taking so long to accept our claims,” Mitchell wrote the EPA. “Time for this office to take action and not play games with our lives.”
The EPA closed that complaint, like the previous complaints. Its final rejection letter said Mitchell did not cite a specific allegation within the 180-day window. “OCR independently could not identify a specific date of an alleged discriminatory act.”
Mitchell said the community lives with the smells and sewer flies every day. Over the years, he said, agency investigators have mentioned other reasons the civil-rights office might deny his claims — questioning whether the city was receiving EPA funding, for instance.
“All these complaints to EPA have gotten us nothing — zero,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s as if the city did nothing, and this is the way people are supposed to live.”
He has filed a fifth, still-pending complaint to the civil-rights office.
Asked about Baton Rouge, the EPA referred to its rejection letters explaining why the cases were closed. The agency said it has helped the community in other ways, supporting an agreement by the city council to relocate residents away from the sewage plant, and “to create a 300-foot buffer zone around the facility.” Under a U.S.-city consent decree dating to 1988, the agency’s regional office in Dallas has monitored North plant operations. The decree settled an EPA enforcement action brought against the city after years of water pollution violations.
“Although the OCR rejected the referenced complaints, the Office supported EPA Region 6’s other efforts to mitigate environmental health issues stemming from the [North] Wastewater Treatment Plant,” the agency said in a written statement.
The plant is undertaking $24.1 million in odor- control projects as well, according to the agency. EPA officials “continue to monitor the implementation of these efforts,” the agency said.
Many residents have now chosen to flee. Even the Mitchell family, long the neighborhood’s holdout, has left the subdivision in recent months. Still residing in Baton Rouge, Gregory Mitchell said his family as well as his mother and her siblings do not miss the malodorous sewage plant. But they had to abandon homes in which they had lived for many years and neighbors to whom they had grown close.
“Our community is gone. It’s no longer there,” said Mitchell, who, if rejected yet again, plans to file a sixth Title VI complaint with the EPA.
“That’s a total civil-rights violation,” he said. “Tell me that’s not a civil-rights violation.”
Clarification, August 3, 2015, 9:28 a.m.: An earlier version of this story said that Title VI does not apply to private companies. The phrase "unless they receive EPA funding" was added for clarity.