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By Rachel Leven
Complaints requesting EPA help on issues from drinking water safety to alleged illegal oil dumps waited more than a year for the agency to read them.
Nine months after that, the Environmental Protection Agency was only getting close to responding, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg BNA.
The EPA’s nine-month delay to respond to the e-mails, and the content of those messages, are the latest revelations following a recent Bloomberg BNA story that reported the agency didn’t check this complaint inbox for civil-rights concerns from June 2014 to July 2015.
The new information shows what appears to be “significant messages that needed attention” and didn’t get it quickly, a civil rights advocate said. The advocate questioned whether the EPA conducted an internal investigation and whether follow-up on these complaints was sufficient.
“It tugs at your heartstrings, at the very least,” Marianne Engelman-Lado, a visiting clinical professor at Yale Law School, told Bloomberg BNA. She pointed to what appears to be a Flint, Mich., resident on drinking water issues to hear from the agency. “Someone was reaching out to their government for help and didn’t get a response. We should expect more from our government.”
The news marks latest blemish on a historically ineffective EPA office that as recently as 2016, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said has “failed miserably” on civil rights protections.
The EPA did not respond to repeated e-mail and phone requests for comment from Bloomberg BNA.
A former EPA staffer familiar with the issue said agency staff knew that the situation looked bad. The EPA wanted to make sure its response was “deliberative and thoughtful,” knowing that “there could be other Flints” in that inbox, the former staffer—who spoke on condition of anonymity—told Bloomberg BNA.
The EPA received 149 messages to the inbox during the 13 months in question, the agency previously told Bloomberg BNA. Of those, 29 e-mails raised discrimination-related concerns, including four new issues that were “immediately referred for jurisdiction review” and some that were already being addressed, the EPA said.
The complaints include at least three messages from Michigan residents for help with water for a handicapped child to a burnt scalp injury in Washington state and diesel spills in Texas, according to the list obtained by Bloomberg BNA.
Other allegations include homes in Texas allegedly built near toxic soil and oil fields, concerns in Mississippi of an ozone-depleting substance released from an air conditioning-related business and a complaint in New Jersey over a building demolition project permit.
The EPA has five days to acknowledge receipt of a message, according to the agency’s regulations implementing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. It then determines whether the message qualifies as a complaint the agency should review. Title VI bars federal funding recipients from discriminating based on race, color or national origin.
While the EPA had told Bloomberg BNA that it acted “immediately” to review and assess the e-mail correspondences, new e-mail correspondence shows the agency was actually still crafting its responses in April 2016. That’s nine months after the EPA said it “became aware” of the e-mail that wasn’t being checked.
Engelman-Lado, who is suing the EPA separately over its processing delays on Title VI, said that the e-mail exchange between several staffers in the then-EPA Office of Civil Rights, the agency’s Office of General Counsel and others “seems to reflect a concern about perception and damage control rather than service to people who are raising concerns about toxic exposure, contamination and discrimination.”
“Although there may be other e-mails that we haven’t seen, the absence of discussion of the impact of the delay and what steps should be taken to address that impact in this e-mail chain is noticeable,” Engelman-Lado said.
Engelman-Lado said the focus at this point should be whether the complaints filed were followed up and addressed, including referring them to another agency or program office.
“We haven’t seen a fully accounting” on this issue, Engelman-Lado said.
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