Louisiana’s Cancer Alley Residents Sue Chemical Plant for Nearly 50 Years of Air Pollution

Three African American men in red t-shirts from the Concerned Citizens of St. John Louisiana stand by a sign warning of cancer risk from chloroprene emissions

If you drive along one of the main streets in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish, you may encounter a large sign warning about chloroprene in the air. These signs let people know that chemical emissions from the nearby DuPont facility, now owned by Denka, can greatly increase the risk of cancer for those who live around it. 

We are being killed by chemicals that the state is allowing Denka and DuPont to pollute our air with,” Robert Taylor, founder of Concerned Citizens of St. John, told me while the group posted the signs. “Putting up signs is one of the steps we are taking, so that later no one can say they didn’t know we are being poisoned.”

Taylor, a 76-year-old retired general contractor, is one of 13 plaintiffs suing Denka Performance Elastomer and E.I. du Pont de Nemours (DuPont), the companies responsible for the chloroprene emissions fouling the air in LaPlace and nearby towns for 48 years. The plant is located along the Mississippi River on a stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as Cancer Alley. 

Cows in a field next to the Denka neoprene plant in LaPlace, Louisiana
Cows roaming in a field next to the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in LaPlace, Louisiana.

The Denka Performance Elastomer plant makes the synthetic rubber neoprene, which uses chloroprene in production of wetsuits and other items. Denka bought the plant from DuPont in 2015, though DuPont still owns some of the land. 

Another plaintiff in this class action lawsuit [PDF, 29 MB] filed June 29 is Kellie Taub, a member of the concerned citizens group. She has lived in the town of Reserve for 25 years, and is a lung cancer survivor who developed a rapid heartbeat, a condition associated with chloroprene exposure. 

A white woman sitting down measures her blood pressure and pulse at home
Kellie Taub monitoring her blood pressure and pulse, which she does several times a day due to her rapid heartbeat, at her home in Reserve, Louisiana.

Taub is concerned not only about the well-being of herself and her neighbors. She showed me the pet cemetery in her backyard. There lie three cats and two dogs, all dead of cancer in the last 12 years. Her last remaining pet, an elderly dog, likely has cancer as well, Taub told me. Though she’d like to adopt new pets, she doesn’t want to force any animals to suffer the same health consequences as her.  

Health Costs of Chloroprene

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) division, which evaluates the toxicity of chemicals, classified chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen in a 2010 review. The agency determined that short-term exposure to high levels of chloroprene can cause headaches, dizziness, respiratory irritation, chest pains, hair loss, gastrointestinal disorders, rashes, corneal damage, and fatigue.

The EPA also cited studies suggesting chloroprene causes an increased risk of lung, liver, and kidney cancers, as well as leukemia and immune-system problems.

The EPA’s IRIS division deems 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter the acceptable standard for chloroprene emissions, one that represents the agency's “upper limit of acceptability.” EPA emissions limits are determined with the goal of keeping the cancer risk from air pollution to less than one for every million people. When that goal is not achievable, the agency sets standards based on the “upper limit of acceptability,” which is a risk of 100 in a million people.

According to the EPA’s 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment, which assesses air contaminants and estimates health risks, the area around the Denka plant received the dubious distinction of having the nation’s highest risk of cancer caused by air pollution, tied to chloroprene emissions.

When Taylor learned about the findings, he started meeting with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), an environmental advocacy group that helps communities threatened by industrial pollution. LEAN helped Taylor form the local citizens group.

We are fighting for our lives, and our children's lives,” Taylor said. “We knew something wasn’t right here, and now with the EPA’s report, our suspicions have been justified.” 

The EPA assessment found that chloroprene emissions were up to 776 times greater than the agency's recommended standard for the census tract closest to the neoprene plant.

Robert Taylor speaks at a meeting of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, Louisiana, at a chapel
Robert Taylor at a Concerned Citizens of St. Johns meeting at the Tchoupitoulas Chapel in Reserve, Louisiana, on June 27.

Lawsuit Says Proposed Emission Cuts Not Enough

Following the latest EPA report, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), the EPA, and Denka agreed that the company would make changes to lower chloroprene levels. Denka signed an Administrative Order on Consent on January 6 outlining the company’s voluntary commitment to reduce chloroprene emissions by 85 percent. 

Taylor and the citizens group don’t believe those measures go far enough. LEAN concurs. Even if Denka’s measures are successful in cutting emissions by that much, the resulting emissions still wouldn’t meet the EPA’s recommended level.

The lawsuit’s priority is getting a judge to grant the community “injunctive relief,” Eberhard Garrison, an attorney for the residents, told me. The suit aims to stop or reduce production at the plant until emissions can meet the EPA’s standard of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. 

The suit also asks for health monitoring for those living near the plant and seeks monetary damages for health-related problems, lost property value due to the pollution, and other related issues. 

Pushback Against EPA’s Assessment

But Chuck Carr Brown, head of LDEQ, has stressed that EPA's standard was “just a guidance.” And the state agency insists there is no health emergency surrounding the plant. If there were, the LDEQ could shut down the plant. 

The LDEQ doesn’t plan on setting its own standard for chloroprene emissions until after the emissions reduction devices Denka agreed to install are operational, which was supposed to be at the end of 2017,

Garrison isn’t overly concerned with LDEQ’s stance. He isn’t fighting the regulators; he is fighting the polluters, he told me. Though he doesn’t doubt Denka will challenge the EPA’s findings, Garrison doesn’t think it will be easy for anyone to invalidate them, even under the anti-regulatory leadership of EPA chief Scott Pruitt

There is an abundance of evidence that shows chloroprene's harmful properties, including internal documents from DuPont.” Garrison said. He also stressed that EPA spent years making its initial determinations.

A 2016 internal EPA memo says its 2010 assessment that chloroprene is “likely to be carcinogenic” to humans was based on a comprehensive review of available evidence on chloroprene toxicity.

And in 1941 DuPont’s in-house toxicology unit released a report to the EPA detailing health problems suffered by workers exposed to chloroprene, including the same problems now experienced by those living near the plant.

In addition, an internal DuPont document obtained by The Intercept indicates that by 1988, the company was concerned enough about the dangers of chloroprene to set its own limit for round-the-clock exposure and community exposure that are both higher than the EPA’s recommended standard.

Based on evidence like this, the recent suit alleges DuPont and Denka both knowingly subjected the community to emission levels harmful to human health. 

A Company in the Crosshairs

Denka has stressed that both companies were operating the plant in compliance with its air permits, which is true. But the permitted emissions levels did not take into account the EPA’s 2010 finding that chloroprene was a likely human carcinogen. 

Denka’s plant manager Jorge Lavastida states in a July 22 editorial that the EPA could still change the standard recommended in its 2015 assessment, stressing that the agency called it preliminary and hadn’t issued a final standard.

Denka thinks a more accurate standard for chloroprene exposure should be much higher that the EPA’s initial recommendation, which the company’s team of experts criticized, representatives told me by email. The company thinks a standard for exposure of “31.25 micrograms per cubic meter on a long term basis is protective of human health and the environment,” and formally requested the EPA amend its findings.

Denka appears to be taking a proactive stance to ensure that standard ends up changed.

The company hired government relations firm Bracewell LLP to file a lobbying registration form for it this year. The lobbyists working on Denka’s behalf include a former EPA employee, Edward Krenik, along with Scott Segal, a partner at the firm who has advised the Trump administration and endorsed Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Segal worked with Pruitt to reverse several Obama-era EPA rules, according to the Washington Post

Past and Potential New Violations at the LaPlace Plant

EPA records indicate DuPont had to pay four fines for violations beginning with a 1976 Clean Water Act infraction. The most recent fine stemmed from a 2014 inspection concluding DuPont accidentally released the hazardous chemical toluene.

Denka, the plant’s current owner, was also recently cited by the EPA for 50 possible Clean Air Act violations. The violations stem from an EPA investigation following its 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment and are spelled out in a draft report sent to the company on April 13 [PDF, 25 MB] . 

Denka challenged the report. Lavastida, the plant manager, stressed in his recent editorial that the agency has issued no citations and its report is still being reviewed. “Denka purchased the facility only six months before the inspection,” he wrote, and “has since made major improvements reflected in a voluntary Administrative Order on Consent.” 

Ongoing Air Testing 

The administrative order mandated both that Denka and the EPA take air samples at designated locations around the plant until the new emissions reduction equipment is operational and that those results be made public. 

Wilma Subra, LEAN’S technical advisor, meets regularly with Concerned Citizens of St. John to review the results. They show that Denka’s emissions have at times increased since monitoring began, with spikes hundreds of times greater than EPA’s standard. 

Wilma Subra from Louisiana Environmental Action Network speaks at a podium at a Concerned Citizens of St. John meeting
Wilma Subra at a Concerned Citizens of St. John meeting on June 27.

Subra analyzed the monthly air monitoring data released on July 21. and found that the results from the air monitoring station  closest to where Taylor and most of the concerned citizens group live, registered the highest ever concentration of chloroprene on June 28.

A man in a red t-shirt and medical mask holds signs about air pollution
On May 18 the Concerned Citizens of St. John raised awareness about air pollution near a school in Reserve, Louisiana, close to the monitoring location which in June showed the highest measured level of chloroprene.

Yet, in an email to me, the LDEQ insists chloroprene emissions show a downward trend. And Brown told the Baton Rouge Advocate that “residents shouldn’t panic,” noting that, “although chloroprene levels fluctuate, sometimes the site shows none at all.”

State scientists have reviewed the air monitoring data and found no imminent threat to human health and the environment, Gregory Langley, LDEQ spokesperson, told me via email.

Marylee Orr with LEAN doesn’t agree with state regulators, and says that LEAN believes “there is no downward trend.”

The citizens group asked LDEQ to make Denka cut production until the emissions reduction devices are up and running, but Denka has not complied.

Now the group hopes its lawsuit will do what LDEQ has not done: Stop the company from emitting harmful levels of chloroprene.

A company’s right to profit has taken precedent over our communities’ right to breathe clean air,” Taylor told me. He likens the state allowing Denka to continue emitting air pollution at levels undoubtedly sickening his community to a crime against humanity. 

The magnitude of this injustice is driving Taylor to make sure his community’s voice is heard. Installing warning signs on a humid Louisiana summer day isn’t how he imagined spending his golden years, but he says he has no intention of letting his friends and family be quietly poisoned. 

All photos by Julie Dermansky.

Main image: Robert Taylor with members of the Concerned Citizens of St. John installing a sign made by LEAN on July 16.