EPA Says Louisiana’s Air Pollution Impairs Minorities’ Civil Rights
LAPLACE, La. — The Environmental Protection Agency is warning Louisiana officials that their failure to protect residents from air pollution in a two-county industrialized area might be a violation of civil rights laws.
The area known as “Cancer Alley” is heavily populated by minority residents along with more than 150 petrochemical plants and oil refineries. Residents complain state officials are ignoring their health concerns to protect the industries.
The EPA sent state environmental and health officials a “letter of concern” last week saying the pollution is disproportionately affecting minority and low-income persons.
“For decades, it appears that [the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’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,” the letter says.
St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes are at the center of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, which runs for 85 miles along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
It gained its name in 1987, when residents of one street in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, noticed numerous cancer cases in their predominantly African American and low-income community. As other high rates of cancer were reported in nearby communities, the “alley” grew to encompass the entire industrial region.
The EPA’s 56-page letter explains findings from its investigation that started after complaints in April from environmental and community groups.
One of the groups was the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of St. John.
“This is long overdue,” Robert Taylor, the group’s executive director, told The Well News about the EPA’s letter of concern. “We just hope they come up with an immediate remedy for it.”
Much of their concern focused on the Denka Performance Elastomers manufacturing plant in LaPlace, Louisiana, which makes the neoprene used in automobile fan belts, orthopedic braces and laptop sleeves. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber produced partly from the toxic chemical chloroprene.
The company would store chloroprene in open storage bins where it was handled by workers who did not wear protective masks, the EPA said. Some people exposed to the bins later contracted cancer.
After environmental activists filed the complaints, EPA inspectors found high levels of toxic emissions from the bins during two unannounced inspections in April and May.
The EPA revealed on its website that Denka Performance Elastomers disposed of more than 4 million pounds of waste in a nearby landfill between 2019 and 2021. Chloroprene was part of the waste.
Denka Performance Elastomers denied wrongdoing in a statement that said, “Since purchasing the neoprene facility in 2015, DPE has operated with its primary focus on safety and reducing its environmental footprint.”
The company says it invested more than $35 million in projects that have reduced its chloroprene emissions by 85%.
“Ambient air quality monitoring conducted by the company since 2016 has shown a similar reduction in concentrations measured at sites around the community,” the statement said.
The EPA’s letter of concern does not threaten legal action but could be evidence leading to liability if state environmental regulators fail to address pollution problems.
The EPA also warned about a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics manufacturing facility proposed for St. James Parish. The manufacturing process would use ethylene oxide, which is linked to cancer.
A state judge concerned about pollution has taken away the permits Formosa Plastics obtained from the Department of Environmental Quality. The company is appealing.
The EPA letter criticized state officials for downplaying risks from air pollution near the Denka Performance Elastomers plant and other industrial sites nearby. It referred to the state health department’s “actions and inactions” that might have increased hazards.
“During the few public meetings held to discuss Denka’s chloroprene emissions that LDEQ attended, when residents raised their concerns about Denka’s failure to meet the maximum annual average chloroprene concentration EPA recommended, LDEQ officials referred to those concerns as ‘fear mongering,'” the letter said.
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health officials said they are cooperating with the EPA.