EPA recommends closing elementary school in St. John due to toxic exposure

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, La. (WVUE) – The Environmental Protection Agency is encouraging the state of Louisiana to shut down an elementary school in Reserve over toxic exposure it calls environmental discrimination.

The EPA said it has evidence that Black residents living near the Denka plant in LaPlace face an increased risk of cancer from a nearby chemical plant and that state officials have allowed air pollution to remain high and downplayed its threat.

Denka is the nation’s only emitter of chloroprene, a toxic volatile liquid byproduct from the creation of the synthetic rubber neoprene, and has been designated by the EPA as a likely carcinogenic.

The agency’s 56-page letter to Louisiana officials describes early findings of racial discrimination by two Louisiana departments involving the entire corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a plant that EPA said emits large amounts of a cancer-causing chemical and a proposed plastics complex.

It said EPA has “significant evidence suggesting that the Departments’ actions or inactions” have hurt and are hurting Black residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish, and the 85-mile (137-kilometer) “cancer alley” corridor officially called the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor.

Robert Taylor, director of Concerned Citizens of St. John who asked the EPA to investigate the state, said his community has been failed “time and time again by every level of government.”

FILE - EPA Administrator Michael Regan, left, arrives at the Fifth Ward Elementary School,...
FILE – EPA Administrator Michael Regan, left, arrives at the Fifth Ward Elementary School, which is near the Denka plant, with Robert Taylor, second left, founder of Concerned Citizens of St. John’s Parish, and Lydia Gerard, third left, a member of the group, in Reserve, La., Nov. 16, 2021. On Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, Regan announced the creation of a new office at EPA focused on environmental justice. “We are embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA,” Regan said. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)(Gerald Herbert | AP)

“My brother died of cancer. We all have some kind of respiratory problem,” said Mary Hampton, whose family built homes near Denka after their father purchased several properties 40 years ago. “We all built here. [My father] died of cancer. He thought he left us a legacy, but he left us a death sentence.”

The EPA letter says neighborhoods near Denka have routinely been exposed to chloroprene concentrations that place them at risk of developing chloroprene-linked cancers over a 70-year lifetime.

“For decades, it appears that LDEQ’s implementation of its air permitting program continuously exposed the residents who live near the Denka facility and the children who attend the St. John the Baptist Parish’s Fifth Ward Elementary School to average annual concentrations of chloroprene in ambient air at levels associated with increased lifetime cancer risk,” Lilian Dorka, deputy assistant administrator for External Civil Rights at the EPA said in the letter addressed to LDEQ and LDH.

“My husband Walter was a founding member of Concerned Citizens of St John. He died in 2018 of kidney cancer,” said Lydia Gerard.

The EPA letter says the Louisiana Department of Health has failed to provide “predominantly black residents living near the Denka facility, and school children attending 5th Ward Elementary, critical information about cancer risks associated with chloroprene levels in these areas.”

The letter also calls on the DEQ to do more monitoring and determine areas with lower chloroprene concentrations to temporarily host the 5th Ward Elementary School.

“I have a great-grandchild here, and I fear for him every day,’ said Hampton.

Jim Harris, a Denka spokesperson, rejected any suggestion the plant contributed to an increased cancer risk and said the threshold the EPA recommends for chloroprene is based on a “faulty and outdated exposure model.” In its response, Denka says the company “has invested millions of dollars in monitoring equipment since it purchased the facility in 2015 and has significantly reduced emissions.”

One of those monitors sits on the grounds of 5th Ward Elementary.

Residents who claim they and family members have gotten ill want the state to do more to establish minimum safe level standards for chloroprene.

“It’s come down drastically, but it’s still over what’s recommended,” said Gerard.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality says after an initial review, “it does not concur with much of the letter and civil rights concerns,” but says it remains, “committed to working the EPA.”

DEQ says it was not provided an opportunity to discuss the EPA’s initial findings or recommendations with the EPA or to review a draft of the letter prior to its issuance. The state says its permitting rules are in full compliance with the Civil Rights Act.

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