The EPA just accused Missouri’s environmental agency of violating the Civil Rights Act

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks at an event in Washington, D.C. on April 15. abin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has preliminarily ruled that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is in violation of Title VI under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Federal investigators found that the state agency failed to comply with several nondiscrimination requirements, such as ensuring that everyone — including those who aren’t proficient in English — can participate in public comment periods, not having a staff person for handling Title VI complaints, and lacking an official notice of nondiscrimination.

The ruling marks one of just a few times in the EPA’s 50-year history that the agency has made a finding of noncompliance in a Title VI lawsuit. In fact, 90 percent of civil rights complaints brought to the EPA aren’t even investigated, according to reporting from the Center for Public Integrity. But experts say the decision in Missouri, along with the EPA’s recent commentsvoicing civil rights concern over a metal scrapyard in Chicago, are indicative of the possible shift under the Biden administration toward prioritizing environmental justice.

“In the past, [the] EPA has never really seriously enforced its obligations under the Civil Rights Act,” said Wyatt Sassman, an environmental law expert at the University of Denver. “To the extent that the EPA’s taking its civil rights obligation, seriously,” he said, “that’s new, and it’s important.”

The EPA quietly released its preliminary findings in March from an investigation of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. The case stems from a Title VI lawsuit filed by the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, based in St. Louis, after the state agency issued an extension of an operating permit for a fuel transport site run by the energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan. Environmental and civil rights groups argue that the DNR’s permit didn’t take into account how emissions from the facility would disproportionately expose low-income communities of color in St. Louis to high levels of air pollution. 05-14-21

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