A court ruled today that the Environmental Protection Agency violated its duty to respond to civil rights complaints in a timely way. The case involved five organizations that had waited years for the EPA to respond to complaints filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color.
The law requires the EPA to respond to parties that file civil rights complaints within 20 days, letting them know whether the agency plans to conduct an investigation. After opening an investigation, the EPA has 180 days to either dismiss a complaint or issue preliminary findings and recommendations based on what it finds in the investigation. But in each of the five cases, the groups waited years — in some cases, decades — for responses from the agency.
Among the groups suing Scott Pruitt and the EPA were Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, a nonprofit in Albuquerque, which filed a complaint in 2002 over a hazardous waste facility in a mostly poor, Hispanic area of southeastern New Mexico; and Californians for Renewable Energy, which in 2000 challenged state permitting decisions that allowed two gas-fired power plants to be located in a mostly nonwhite, low-income community in Pittsburg, California.
The EPA officially resolved all five of the complaints over the last year, declaring them closed with little or no remedy. But none of the groups, which were based in Alabama, Texas, New Mexico, California, and Michigan, feel that the situations sparking their initial complaints have been adequately addressed.
With help from Earthjustice and the Environmental Justice Clinic at Yale Law School, the groups filed a complaint in 2015 arguing that the EPA had defied the law that lays out a schedule for responding to civil rights claims. In a decision dated March 30, Federal District Court Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong agreed.
“The EPA often takes years to act on a complaint — and even then, acts only after a lawsuit has been filed,” Armstrong wrote in her decision, going on to note that “the EPA has allowed Plaintiffs’ complaints to languish for decades.”
An EPA spokesperson responded to a request for comment with an email saying, “We don’t comment on pending litigation.”