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Missouri’s Only Nonprofit Environmental Law Firm Has St. Louisans Taking Global Issues Local

Excessive air pollution is one of a range of issues the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is focused on in the bi-state region.
Great Rivers Environmental Law Center
Excessive air pollution is one of a range of issues the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is focused on in the bistate region.

Karisa Gilman-Hernandez is focused on environmental justice — something that can take many forms. In her work as the community empowerment organizer at Dutchtown South Community Corporation in south St. Louis, it means addressing the state of south-city alleyways and solid waste management issues, among other projects.

Such efforts might seem small in a world of global environmental and existential threats. Yet Gilman-Hernandez knows that many solutions, when it comes to protecting both nature and humans, begin close to home.

“We get stuck in a global-warming, polar-bears mindset, and that definitely is super true,” she explained to St. Louis on the Air, “but at the same time, there’s a lot of things happening right here in St. Louis … and we just don’t notice it because it’s just how we live every day, and we’ve accepted that these things happen and this is how it is around us.”

Earlier this year, after being approached by the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, Gilman-Hernandez and her colleagues added excessive air pollution to their list of things they would no longer accept. The public interest law firm filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the Dutchtown South Community Corporation and the St. Louis branch of the NAACP.

As St. Louis Public Radio reported in October, the complaint alleges that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the EPA’s own regulations, by renewing air pollution permits for Kinder Morgan Transmix, a gasoline and diesel fuel company along the St. Louis riverfront, without input from residents.

“People notice the smell,” Gilman-Hernandez said. “When I talk to people about it, I say, ‘Have you ever noticed that weird, chemical-y smell that’s in the air sometimes? … That’s the Kinder Morgan facility. It’s got all sorts of pollutants in it that are linked to asthma and heart disease and all sorts of other bad things.’ And they go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve always thought about it.’

“Nobody was surprised that there was such a large [polluter] in their neighborhood. I think they all just kind of assumed that if there was pollutants in the air then they wouldn’t be that harmful or somebody would have done something about it.”

Sarah Rubenstein (at left) and Bob Menees are both attorneys with Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.
Sarah Rubenstein & Bob Menees
Sarah Rubenstein (at left) and Bob Menees are both attorneys with Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.

The EPA is reviewing the complaint, a step that Great Rivers staff lawyers Sarah Rubenstein and Bob Menees see as important. That’s because, as Menees explained, the action follows a 2015 report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that found the EPA was not meeting its civil rights obligations, failing to investigate discrimination complaints in a timely manner.

That report came near the end of President Obama’s time in office. Under the Trump administration, the EPA has continued to process complaints, Menees said.

On Thursday’s talk show, he and Rubenstein joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss why the pollution burden in the Dutchtown area caught their eye and how their legal efforts there fit in with other issues in their portfolio.

For Menees, his years of work at the nonprofit fittingly combine what he envisioned for himself at the ripe young age of 5: “a garbage man during the day to clean up the planet and a lawyer at night like my dad.” For Rubenstein, who joined the nonprofit in 2019 after many years in private practice, it’s the fulfillment of a long-hoped-for dream.

And for Gilman-Hernandez and the community she’s working to serve, they’re a lifeline.

“There’s a lot of times when I’m just like, ‘I’m not a lawyer,’” she said. “I know what I think is right and what I would like to see happen, but it’s nice to know that we have some lawyers that we can call upon to let us know, ‘What are the legal rights here? What are the different powers at play?’ And I’m just really appreciative to them for that.”

When it comes to the Kinder Morgan situation, Gilman-Hernandez noted, she understands it’s a facility that “has to exist.” But “it’s become really clear that these facilities are only being built in communities of color. They’re being built in poorer neighborhoods, and I want to see that stopped.”

The St. Louis on the Air team reached out to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for comment, and a spokesperson responded with the following statement:

“Public participation is an important priority of the Department of Natural Resources. We provide notice to and accept comments from the public on all air operating permits, including the recent renewal of the air operating permit for the Kinder Morgan Transmix Company. We received and responded to comments from the community during that renewal process. The Department is cooperating fully with EPA to respond to Great Rivers’ complaint.

“The Department of Natural Resources does not discriminate against any person or community based on any protected class, including but not limited to, race, color, national origin, or other status such as income level. We consider nondiscrimination a duty and an integral part of our mission.”

We also asked Kinder Morgan for its response to the allegations. The company provided this statement:

“In September, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources conducted a thorough inspection of our facility for compliance with its air regulations and permitting, and there were no concerns identified. The odor is not originating from our Transmix operations. While we do operate in an industrial area, the space is shared with other companies.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.