Part II: Civil Rights & Cumulative Impacts
This is Part II of a series on how tenants are organizing to hold problem landlords accountable, and what happens when large companies and the state need to be held accountable too. If you haven’t listened to Part I: Tenant Rights and Resistance, listen to it now!
We wanted to share a follow-up conversation with Myisha Johnson, one of the three working members of State Street Tenant Resistance and the founder of Community First Plus, a new housing and environmental justice organization. She’s been connecting the dots between health problems and pollution from facilities like Kinder Morgan for over a decade. In this episode, we hear how Myisha felt when residents like her were asked to sign onto an administrative complaint to the EPA about the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Then, attorneys Sarah Rubenstein and Bob Menees of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center will share about what happened when they filed the administrative complaint to the EPA on behalf of the Missouri and St. Louis City NAACP and Dutchtown South Community Corporation.
Civil Rights & Cumulative Impact Transcript
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Jia Lian: Hey everyone, it’s Jia Lian.
You’re listening to Part II of a two-part series on how tenants are organizing to hold problem landlords accountable and what happens when large companies, and the state need to be held accountable too.
If you haven’t listened to our last episode, Tenant Rights and Resistance, hit pause and go back and listen to it now!
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Jia Lian: Before we dive into the administrative complaint that Great Rivers Environmental Law Center filed against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, I wanted to share a follow-up conversation that I had with Myisha Johnson, one of the three working members of State Streets Tenant Resistance, who is a tenant living in South St. Louis City.
She’s been connecting the dots between health problems and pollution from facilities like the gasoline and fuel loading terminal Kinder Morgan for over a decade.
Myisha: I worked third shift. So when I come in sometimes in the morning, I would smell this really strong gas smell [music fades out] and it would give me real bad headaches and it would be hard for me to fall asleep. I would clean the house just to, you know, give a different odor or scent within the home.
And I started seeing my mother and father getting sick and didn't know why. I lost my father and later found out that he had cancer and we thought it was just diabetes. Then I noticed that some of the neighbors would get lumps and bumps all over their body. And I started asking my mom, what was-- what is that about? She could never explain it to me.
And then the second year of me being in St. Louis, I was diagnosed with stage two cancer. So I'm like, yo, [laughing] something ain't right over here. What's going on? And after I became cancer free six months later, I lost my mom to stage four cancer. I also noticed that a lot of children that were in that were growing up in that community had learning disabilities.
And so I started asking more questions. Do you all smell this? How long did you experience the health issues that you were having before you moved in this community. How long after you moved in this community that you start experiencing these conditions and a lot of them will say a year or two after moving there.
I even have an aunt that recently passed that moved from Marine Villa after she found out that how polluted it was. When she died, she had big tumors growing out of her face and was told it was hereditary, but what I tried to explain to her is that I seen other elder individuals in Marine Villa form the same type of tumors.
She is now gone. It's been a year now that she's passed, but I've known common effects that show up in the Marine Villa at-- the schools can vouch for me that [music comes in] a lot of their Black and Brown children have asthma-- asthmatic behaviors. You know, they they have the episodes when they're too hot or when they walk in the building, it triggers them.
Jia Lian: Later, Myisha learned that polluting companies were being issued permits in her neighborhood, with little to no community engagement from the state.
So in this episode, we’ll hear more from Myisha about how she felt when residents like her were asked to sign onto an administrative complaint to the EPA about the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
And attorneys Sarah Rubenstein and Bob Menees of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center will share about what happened when they filed the administrative complaint to the EPA on behalf of the Missouri and St. Louis City NAACP and Dutchtown South Community Corporation.
From St. Louis Public Radio and PRX, this is We Live Here.
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Jia Lian: Myisha has been advocating for tenant rights for over a decade, ever since she became a renter.
Myisha: My first place, it seemed nice. But when I got into the cold weather, I started noticing mice. And so we didn't stay there long. It was probably about four months we lived there. And then we-- our second home, had the same experience. Plus, it was the building itself was decaying. So, you know, one experience I was getting out the tub and fell through the floor. Yeah. The landlord wasn't happy that I continued to call him and make reports of all the experiences I was having in that space.
And then the second place I moved into, I had to rally the tenants together and what he did was he filed a mass eviction for everyone in the building except for myself. And there were pests there. I will just let you know it was bedbugs and it messed with the tenants mental and being able to go throughout the day. [upbeat clarinets come in] And so I had them write up all the times that they've connected with the landlord and he did not show up. I had them take pictures of the things that they were experiencing in that building. And I I moved out shortly after that.
But most of the tenants reached out to me and told me that they were able to move. The landlord had to pay for a deposit when they moved and they didn't owe him anything even though they were behind in rent. And that's when I realized, yo, we have power as tenants.
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The next year, she met Sunni Hutton who was the Community Development Manager for Dutchtown South Community Corporation at the time.
Myisha: And we started organizing around community cleanups and addressing waste pickups and what the community wanted to see as far as change and how the waste system addressed their communities.
They walked down alleys to collect stories from residents about illegal dumping.
And her family got involved, too.
Myisha: My oldest son is 24. My middle son is 21 and my daughter's 14. They're nature kids. We're from southern Indiana. We live by a levee. So, you know, they've seen a lot of different animals and insects and studied the current of the water.
And my daughter, My’Asia, is a community champion with the Dutchtown South Community and enjoys the community cleanups. My nieces and nephews sometimes pitch in, you know, when they're over. My son has advocated for some of the housing rights that we fought for. He's also canvassed.
My middle son, Keyshon. Before he leaves the house, he would clean up the yard in our street, our whole block. So the neighbors started giving him money. And I was like, why are they giving you money? And he was like, oh, she said she appreciates that I pick the trash up in front of the house. He'll do it when he leaves and he’ll do it when he comes back in the house. So he would constantly pick up the trash.
I remember my friend Tosha Phonix, who fights for food justice. She was over one day and we were sitting down and she said, look at that young man cleaning up the whole block. I said, that's my son, Tosha. She was like, ah well, we need to get him something because that's ain’t normal for, you know, it's not something that you would normally see for twenty one year old, twenty two year old to be cleaning their block up every time they see debris around.
Jia Lian: Myisha became the Tenant Rights Coordinator at Dutchtown South Community Corporation where they had community empowerment meetings, which led to the creation of a tenant union, State Street Tenant Resistance and a local effort to expand affordable housing, Homes for All St. Louis.
But even though she’s been able to hold landlords and utility companies accountable.
She's also experienced changes to the environment that require even more effort to address.
Myisha: I remember them cutting down the trees. It really made me angry because I'm like, yo, that smell has been stronger since they cut the tree down. And I noticed that they were starting to cut a lot of trees down in that area and birds that year, birds were dropping out of the sky dead and they were finding dead rabbits all over. And that's what really made me start paying attention to what was going on around us. Not just the folks in the households getting sick, but look at the nature around us.
Then, attorneys from Great Rivers Environmental Law Center visited one of Dutchtown South’s Community meetings to inform them that Kinder Morgan was in the neighborhood and that their operating permit was up for renewal.
Myisha: I believe a lot of the things that the health experience and mental breakdown, it could be caused from the gassy smell that was entering folks’ home and that was entering their system from enjoying a nice day in the backyard or playing in the front with the kids.
Later, the attorneys told residents that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources or MDNR had issued a permit to Kinder Morgan without proper community involvement.
Myisha: When they told me that, I was angry. I've lost my parents! My children almost lost me. And I'm sure that I'm not-- our family isn't the only one that had that experience in that community and [pause] don't know where to begin on telling their story and even identifying that it's not their fault.
Residents of Dutchtown South, Marine Villa, and other predominantly Black and Brown St. Louis City neighborhoods weren’t usually informed about polluting facilities in their neighborhood, let alone that operating permits were being reissued without their involvement.
But this time, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center was paying attention and they weren’t going to let it slide.
Myisha: I was excited, I was excited because this [clapping for emphasis] is going to [clap] bring attention [clap] around the gas smell. Also around the health issues that continue to show up in these communities. The community can scream and yell and tell their story and take up space, but we still need you to hold them accountable along with the community, because the community is now realizing their power, but you have the power to make them address the issues that continue to show disparity in this community. And it's it's not just Dutchtown. Northside have the same experience with the plants that's over there. I think the difference is theirs don't smell like gas. [laughs] So, St. Louis. When are we going to make that change? 'Cause We Live Here.
Attorneys Sarah Rubenstein and Bob Menees filed an administrative complaint to the EPA and Office of Civil Rights against MDNR.
And now, the EPA has made a preliminary finding that MDNR has violated federal civil rights regulations by failing to have a notice of nondiscrimination or a nondiscrimination coordinator.
Missouri Independent also reported that the agency didn’t have acceptable grievance procedures for residents who file civil rights complaints and hasn’t done enough to provide opportunities for people with limited English proficiency to engage in the permitting process.
Myisha: It doesn't surprise me, it doesn't surprise me. Yes, it upsets me because it's affecting the communities that face a lot of disparities. You know, racism is a big part of it. It goes from housing, from the air to housing to the food we eat. You know. [sighs with frustration] It upsets me, their finding, but it pleases me that they see that it's an issue and that it needs to be addressed and that this lawsuit was formed for residents to see that they can make change. And they, they do hold the power to bring awareness and enforce the change around them.
Jia Lian: The EPA is starting to reach out to conduct interviews with residents about MDNR’s permitting process for Kinder Morgan.
Myisha: I'm hopeful for change and that community realizes that their voices do matter. I am sitting back and waiting to see how this is going to roll out due to the fact that many years folks have noticed the issues that has arised in this community and around it.
Jia Lian: As she waits for the results of the EPA investigation, Myisha is turning her passion for environmental and housing justice into action by starting her own organization, Community First Plus.
Myisha: The goal for Community First Plus is to organize around the issues, address the issues, but also have community to step into their power and be the change for those issues that keep showing up in their home and around their home.
Jia Lian: After leaving her position at Dutchtown South, Myisha co-founded Community First Plus with Leah Clyburn, the Beyond Coal organizer for the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club… to focus on regenerative community development, sustainable living, and raising awareness of environmental racism in St Louis.
The organization is fiscally sponsored by Metropolitan Congregations United, a faith-based coalition working to change public policy on issues ranging from voting rights to breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.
For several months, they've been building relationships with tenants and pushing for air quality monitoring in low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods.
Myisha: We don't have the funding to move out of these communities. A lot of folks grew up here and they just want to stay here. So why can't we have a safe community?
But there's also white families that experience the same things we do, due to the economic breakdown that, you know, they can't afford to live anywhere else, [rhythmic piano music comes in] but just because we can't live in the higher class neighborhoods, does that mean we can't have clean air? Or a safe space to live? As this program is called, We Live Here!
Why aren't we the voices of the change? Why aren't we part of the decision-making? The gentrification that's going on around here, the community doesn't know about it until this happens. And then they realize, oh, and I can't live there either because I can't afford it? That's not fair. [strings come in] It's not fair to the community and it's not fair to the children that's coming up.
And I believe that change can be made. It didn't happen overnight, so it can't be changed overnight. But I would like for it to be changed when my grandchildren are homeowners, homeowners! When my grandchildren are able to have a decision at the table. I would like to see change before then and by then.
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And she believes that society would be transformed if housing was treated as a human right.
Myisha: There's nothing like having your own four walls. My mother always used to say, God bless the child that has his own. But it's a true story, that's a true story. There's nothing like having your own, your own space, whether if it's on the streets or in the building, [clarinet music comes in] but I believe that if everyone has secured four walls, that we will see an economic change, a health change, and a better community.
There’s still a long way to go before everyone has access to safe, quality, affordable housing.
In the meantime, the attorneys at Great Rivers Environmental Law Center are issuing public comments and filing complaints and lawsuits as safeguards against even more pollution in residential neighborhoods.
So up next, attorneys Sarah Rubenstein and Bob Menees will discuss the connection between cumulative impacts and civil rights.
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Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a Missouri-based public interest law firm focused on the environment and public health.
It was founded in 2002 by St. Louis environmental lawyer Lewis C. Green toward the end of his life, which he devoted to fighting for clean air and water and environmental protections.
Staff attorneys Sarah Rubenstein and Bob Menees follow in his footsteps by pushing for the enforcement of environmental laws, whether that means filing administrative complaints or going to court for litigation.
Sarah: I would say that the lion’s share of the permits that we comment on, at least in the state of Missouri, we or our clients who are commenting on behalf of are the only ones that make any kind of comment to the permit. Typically, the EPA will have something to say about a permit. But when you look at the record of a final permit, if we haven't submitted comments, we don't often see anyone else doing that.
So I think we are providing an important mechanism for members of the public to engage with the state. I wish the process was more transparent and easier for the public to know about and B, get involved with. But as it is right now, it's pretty technical and sort of hidden and you kind of have to know what's happening and when the due dates are and what a bunch of technical terms mean. And we try to translate that for our clients.
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Jia Lian: For close to a decade, the firm has acted like a detective, poking around and conducting research on permit renewals across the region.
Bob: What we did was kind of looked in North St. Louis, South St. Louis, at different facilities around St. Louis to see whether different permits were being properly issued and that different facilities had the right air, water, hazardous waste permit. And in looking at different facilities and kind of going on a piece by piece basis, facility by facility, we started to see that there were lots of permits that were very old and stagnant. There were some facilities that didn't have the right permits.
But in recognizing that these areas seem to have a lot of facilities located in them, whether they had the right permits, expired permits, we came across this notion that the Department of Natural Resources wasn't really considering the cumulative impacts of all of these different facilities.
And so in our research into that issue, we discovered that there are these requirements that agencies that accept federal funding have to comply with nondiscrimination requirements under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and EPA's regulations. And so when we figured out that those requirements existed, which require things like having meaningful public involvement in programs, we came to the conclusion that the Department of Natural Resources probably wasn't meeting those legal obligations.
And so we started submitting comments to the agency around 2017, advising them that they weren't doing these types of things, like making sure that they had grievance procedures and a nondiscrimination coordinator and that they weren't providing meaningful access to low income and minority communities and people with limited English proficiency. And that kind of led the path towards the complaint we're dealing with now with Dutchtown and Kinder Morgan.
Jia Lian: Sarah says that the Missouri and St. Louis City NAACP, and Dutchtown South Community Corporation were dismayed that civil rights regulations weren’t being followed in the Missouri Department of Natural Resources permitting process.
But residents were even more surprised about the existence of Kinder Morgan and other polluting companies in their neighborhood, let alone that Kinder Morgan’s permit was up for renewal.
Sarah: The organizations really had no even awareness that this facility was present and that it had the potential to impact their lives and their air quality. So us getting involved and bringing all of this to their attention, it sort of opened their eyes to, wow, there's this whole procedure out there that we weren't aware of. It's kind of been a joint effort. We've been educating these groups about this issue and then in the process, they've been educating us about what kind of impacts they've been experiencing and either side not even realizing that there was this connection that could be related to the sources of pollution in their neighborhoods.
Jia Lian: Even if they don’t always know where the pollution is coming from, Dutchtown South residents are familiar with pollution and strange smells.
Sarah: We definitely commonly hear a complaint of odors, and it's really hard to to pinpoint what is the source of an odor, especially when you have numerous sources of pollution. But that's a common one, we hear.
But I would say the more serious issues that we hear about involve increased cases of asthma. Asthma is a real problem in the city of St. Louis. Admissions to the emergency room for asthma conditions are really quite high in the city. The city scores unfortunately very high, with high being a negative on the American Lung Association’s list of safe cities for air pollution. Unfortunately, it's it's quite poor on that regard.
And then there are a smattering of stories that folks have been willing to share about incidents of cancer. And there has also been, more recently, some analysis statistically establishing a connection between certain neighborhoods in the city and increased likelihood of developing cancer. So these anecdotal stories certainly follow from that statistical research.
Jia Lian: The connection between health impacts and pollution is clear in mostly Black neighborhoods across the region.
Bob: One of the other impacts that we've heard about is related to operations in some facilities in North St. Louis where residents in Hyde Park feel on certain days when they can see that certain facilities are emitting smoke, they they know they don't want to go outside and breathe the air. And so they almost feel trapped inside their own homes on on some days when they can tell that the air quality is going to be worse based on emissions from nearby facilities.
Jia Lian: Residents in neighborhoods where multiple polluting facilities operate are even more affected.
That’s why Bob and Sarah don’t focus on the individual polluters.
Instead, they’re more interested in getting the state to consider cumulative impacts…
Bob: The Missouri Department of Natural Resources should be doing a lot more in urban areas as it relates to their permitting program to ensure that they're providing meaningful access to communities that are disproportionately impacted by health impacts.
Our understanding is, is that the agency advises people over listservs that they don't even know exists. And so it just seems like the department doesn't really have a presence in these communities and wants to operate kind of in the dark.
Jia Lian: Technically, any member of the public can receive updates about permit renewals through the MDNR website.
You can go to dnr.mo.gov and click on the image that says “Environmental Permits Portal.”
And if you want updates on air pollution permit renewals, you can click the link that says “Air Pollution Draft Permits on Public Notices.”
On that page in the upper right corner, there’s a multi-colored envelope comment icon with the text “Get Updates on this Issue.”
When you click that icon, it takes you to a page where you can enter your email address to get notified whenever MDNR posts a new draft permit on their website.
Sarah: I have personally signed up for that notification. And I will tell you that every single time the email that comes from the state goes to my spam folder. So I have to know, a) to go sign up for this listserv email. But then I also have to know to go to my spam folder to check it.
A lot of low income communities don't have access to a computer. And so we think that a computer and the Internet is not the best way to notify the public about some important government decision is about to be made that concerns their community.
Jia Lian: Sarah and Bob believe that there are concrete steps that MDNR can take to improve community engagement and access to the permitting process.
Sarah: Just some that occurred to us, possibly using social media as a way of reaching people. A lot of people do have a phone and have access to social media even when they might not have a computer. Also, there are places that notices could be posted where folks might see them, whether it's a community center or a bus station or a metro station, somewhere in their community that they're likely to see the notification.
And then the other thing we’d really like to see is instead of just posting this draft permit-- they tend to be very technical documents-- it would be great to have the documents somehow translated to someone who doesn't necessarily have a law degree or an advanced science degree to be able to process that information so, you know, maybe there should be a fact sheet, something that distills the essential facts about the facility and about what is being proposed in the permit in a way that would be easier for people to digest.
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Bob: We're trying to get these things like cumulative impact analysis and and better public participation. But it seems like these essential components of a nondiscrimination program have to be in place before that can even happen. And so our hopes would be if EPA compels DNR to do these things, that it kind of shifts the tides and puts things off in going in the right direction towards first ensuring that there isn't discrimination going on in these environmental programs. And then secondarily, working towards achieving true environmental justice, which is you know, the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in environmental processes and programs. And we're just, that just isn't happening right now.
Jia Lian: This isn’t the first time Great Rivers has critiqued MDNR for failing to meaningfully engage low-income communities of color.
In recent years, Sarah and Bob also submitted comments about air pollution control permits for two other facilities: MSD Bissell Point, a wastewater treatment plant for the St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District and Mallinckrodt, a pharmaceutical company.
They recommended that MSD update their wastewater treatment methods, instead of using incinerators from the sixties to process sewer sludge.
And they called for MDNR to issue Mallinckrodt an air pollution control operating permit, instead of allowing it to operate without one and [clarinets come in] effectively locking residents out of participating in the regulatory process for two decades.
Sarah: The same process happened with the Kinder Morgan facility that also happened with Bissell Point and and Mallinckrodt. And when Great Rivers put together its comments for all three of those facilities, we asked the state to consider, a) the cumulative impacts of the facility and b) to implement a better program for involving the public that's more transparent and does a better job of notifying the public of these permits, and we got the same response pretty much all three times, which was: “We comply with Title VI. We don't have to do any of this stuff that you've asked us to do. And so we're not going to.”
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Jia Lian: I reached out to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for comment and asked a lot of questions.
I wanted to know how they were planning to respond to allegations of discrimination in their permitting process and if they had strategies for increasing meaningful public participation by low-income and minority communities or addressing cumulative impacts on those communities.
I asked why they didn’t have a nondiscrimination coordinator on staff and if there is a plan to hire one.
And after looking through their organizational chart, I asked why the air pollution control program director position was vacant and if there were plans to fill that position too.
I also wanted to know the racial makeup of the MDNR staff by percentage.
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Jia Lian: A spokesperson for MDNR responded that the Department does not comment on pending legal matters.
However, they did share their response to the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office… [strings come in] in which they argued that the Office was placing an “extra-regulatory burden that forces MDNR to disprove allegations,” rather than “conducting an actual, neutral process of fact gathering.”
They explained that their HR manager also serves as the agency’s Nondiscrimination Coordinator and argued that requiring a specific employee name for a nondiscrimination coordinator “introduces potential inaccuracy for the public upon any personnel change.”
Regarding access to grievance procedures and the permitting process for people with limited English proficiency, they said that their “policy and procedure is simple: upon request, it will provide translation and interpretation services free of charge.”
They asserted that MDNR “is not discriminating or retaliating, the procedures and policies follow the law, and the Department proactively takes steps to prevent discriminatory and retaliatory behavior.”
The spokesperson’s message concluded that “The result of these fundamental problems is that [the External Civil Rights Compliance Office] must dismiss [the] Complaint [...].”
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Jia Lian: Sarah and Bob explain that the complaint was escalated to the EPA because the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was uninterested in mediation or informal resolution.
The EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office’s preliminary findings were issued in a letter dated March 30, 2021 and I spoke with Sarah and Bob about those findings on May 10th.
MDNR responded in the letter they shared with me on May 19th.
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Jia Lian: What happens to the complaint is now up to the EPA which is also tasked with interviewing residents and conducting its own investigation.
In the meanwhile, Sarah and Bob are hopeful that the preliminary finding will have ripple effects for permitting processes across Missouri.
Sarah: The best thing that can happen from this process is for people in these impacted communities to gain a better understanding of what's been sort of happening under the radar, for them to be able to figure out how to learn what's what sort of sources of pollution are located in their neighborhoods, what the impacts of those facilities could be on their health and their family's health, and to figure out a way to get involved in the process. And we're hoping that pretty quickly, at least, these items that were identified in the preliminary findings will get rectified and that will enable the public to get involved in the process more effectively.
Bob: Our hope would be that these facilities don't think it's quite so easy to just go to the government and get this permit without having to consider the impacts that their operations are causing on communities in which they've located.
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Jia Lian: This show is produced by me, Jia Lian Yang.
And my co-producer, Lauren Brown.
One more note before we go…
St. Louis Public Radio is looking into racially restrictive covenants and deeds in the St. Louis region.
In the early to mid-1900s, white homeowners and realtors commonly used these tools to keep Black people out of certain neighborhoods.
If you live in an old home, check your records.
They might have clues that could help inform our reporting.
Look through your real estate documents for restrictions on who can own it and live there.
You can find more information on how to share those documents and your stories with us on our website at stlpr.org/housingdiscrimination.
St. Louis Public Radio is a member-supported service of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
From St. Louis Public Radio and PRX, this is We Live Here.
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