Sixteen years ago, soon after she gave birth to her first baby, Maricela Mares-Alatorre joined residents of three small California farmworker towns who alleged they were being discriminated against by environmental regulators, because all three of the state's toxic waste dumps were located in or near poor rural Latino communities.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which received that civil rights complaint when Bill Clinton was president, hasn't addressed it and all the dumps continue to operate.
Trucks filled with PCBs, benzene, and asbestos continue to pass within three miles of Mares-Alatorre's home in Kettleman City on their way to one of the country's biggest toxic landfills, where they're treated, stored or buried. That dump and another one, in Buttonwillow, are in the state's sprawling Central Valley, while the third is to the south, just outside the hamlet of Westmorland.
A federal suit filed in Fresno, Calif., last week by a community group founded by Mares-Alatorre's parents and another community organization alleges that the EPA has failed to respond to the complaint within the mandated period. Mares-Alatorre's 16-year-old son is part of the group that filed the lawsuit.
Environmental groups claim the case is proof of the long-standing neglect of environmental justice by previous administrations, and they argue it casts doubts on whether the administration of President Barack Obama has made it a priority.
The lawsuit alleges that the agency has engaged in "a pattern and practice" of failing to accept, reject or refer civil rights complaints and failing to issue preliminary findings in a timely manner, thus exposing poor communities of color to a disproportionate share of adverse environmental impacts.
"The thought is that there's a level of complacency in communities like ours. And that's not true," Mares-Alatorre said. "But by siting these kinds of facilities in areas with specific types of demographics, they're really overburdening people who are least able to come up with the resources to fight them."
The EPA said in a statement that it could not comment on pending litigation.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination by institutions that utilize federal funds. The EPA distributes funds to the California regulatory agencies, including the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, that were named in the original toxic dumps complaint filed in December 1994.
The Department of Toxic Substances said it could not comment on the lawsuit, but its director Deborah O. Raphael said in a statement that her agency is "committed to taking a careful look to improve the permitting process and to give consideration to the concerns raised in the complaint."
The toxic dump complaint is one of several dozen filed across the nation that the EPA hasn't resolved. According to a list prepared by the agency, there are more than 30 pending complaints that have been accepted, but the EPA has not made timely preliminary findings and recommendations for any of these complaints. The majority were accepted for investigation in 2008 or earlier despite the 180-day deadline for issuing preliminary findings. Several, including the toxic waste dump complaint, were accepted in the 1990s.
"The EPA has a long and dismal track record of failing to protect those whom Congress protected with the Civil Rights Act," said Brent Newell, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment who filed the lawsuit on behalf of residents. "It has ignored its duty to resolve these complaints."
Academic studies done in the 1980s and 1990s found that blacks and poor people were far more likely than whites to live near hazardous waste disposal sites, polluting power plants or industrial parks. Then-President Bill Clinton issued an "environmental justice" order in 1993 requiring federal agencies to ensure that minorities and poor people weren't exposed to more pollution and other environmental dangers than other Americans.
The EPA's inspector general reported in 2004 that the agency hadn't implemented Clinton's order.
In 2009, in the first suit regarding the timeliness of the EPA's response to civil rights complaints, an appellate court cited the EPA's "consistent pattern of delay" and ruled that the agency's Civil Rights Office did not meet its regulatory deadlines. That lawsuit was filed by the Rosemere Neighborhood Association in Washington state after the EPA failed to respond to several of its civil rights complaints.
Little has changed since then, Newell said, despite the new administration's promise to tackle environmental justice. Two years into EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's tenure, none of the pending complaints has been addressed, he said.
A report commissioned by the EPA and issued in March criticized the agency's Office of Civil Rights for "not adequately adjudicating Title VI complaints" and for lacking "the rudiments of organizational infrastructure," such as established procedures, qualified staff or the ability to track cases.
The report found that the handling of complaints has been mired in lengthy delays and a hefty backlog. It showed that only 15 out of 247 civil rights complaints filed since 1993 were compliant with the EPA's targeted 20-day timeframe for acknowledgement. Half of the complaints took one year or more to move to accepted or dismissed status. One case was accepted after nine years and another after 10 years.
In response, administrator Jackson said in a written memorandum that the agency "will move quickly to address the issues raised in the report and continue our effort to make the EPA home to a model civil-rights program."
Meanwhile, Mares-Alatorre hopes the new lawsuit helps the agency reform its complaint process and examine why low-income rural communities get stuck with polluting projects.
"A lot of times they say it's the geography that's perfect for projects like the toxic dump," she said. "But really, it has more to do with politics."