U.S. Lawsuit Seeks to Force Two Major Companies to Significantly Reduce Emissions From ‘Cancer Alley’ Plant
The Pontchartrain Works facility makes neoprene, a synthetic rubber used for everything from laptop covers to wetsuits. But to do this, it releases chloroprene, a likely carcinogen that is the main reason that the majority Black town of Reserve, Louisiana, has the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the country, at a full 50 times the national average, as The Guardian reported in 2019.
“It’s a positive move in the right direction,” Mary Hampton, the president of Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish – where Reserve is located – told AP News of the lawsuit. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Tuesday’s complaint was filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) with the help of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to an EPA press release. It names two companies: the Japanese-based Denka Performance Elastomer LLC that owns and operates the plant and U.S. chemical giant DuPont Specialty Products USA LLC, which owns the land beneath the plant and acts as Denka’s landlord. The complaint, filed under section 303 of the Clean Air Act, intends to force Denka to reduce its chloroprene emissions.
“We allege that Denka’s emissions have led to unsafe concentrations of carcinogenic chloroprene near homes and schools in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in the press release. “The Justice Department’s environmental justice efforts require ensuring that every community, no matter its demographics, can breathe clean air and drink clean water. Our suit aims to stop Denka’s dangerous pollution.”
Chloroprene, like other carcinogens, is especially dangerous to children who are still developing. Yet the plant is within 450 feet of the 5th Ward Elementary School, which more than 300 children attend, and within a mile-and-a-half of East St. John High School, which around 1,200 children attend.
“The suit claims that emissions remain so high that a child breathing air near certain monitors around the facility’s fence line would exceed their lifetime excess cancer risk within two years,” Yvonne Leche Perkins of Concerned Citizens of St. John posted on its Facebook page.
Overall, air monitoring carried out by both the EPA and Denka show long-term chloroprene concentrations near the plant that are as much as 14 times what’s recommended over 70 years of life, according to the press release.
In response, Denka said it “strongly disagrees” with the complaint, as The Guardian reported.
“DPE is in compliance with its air permits and applicable law,” the company said in a statement reported by The Guardian. “EPA is taking an unprecedented step – deviating from its permitting and rulemaking authorities – to allege an ‘emergency’ based on outdated and erroneous science the agency released over 12 years ago.”
The claim is part of attempts by the Biden administration to clean up “Cancer Alley” – a corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and Louisiana notorious for petrochemical plants that disproportionately impact Black and low-income communities, as AP News noted. EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited the region in late 2021 as part of an environmental justice tour and pledged action, including $600,000 for air pollution monitoring.
“When I visited Saint John the Baptist Parish during my first Journey to Justice tour, I pledged to the community that EPA would take strong action to protect the health and safety of families from harmful chloroprene pollution from the Denka facility,” Regan said in the press release. “This complaint filed against Denka delivers on that promise. The company has not moved far enough or fast enough to reduce emissions or ensure the safety of the surrounding community. This action is not the first step we have taken to reduce risks to the people living in Saint John the Baptist Parish, and it will not be the last.”