Today, the Louisiana community group Concerned Citizens of St. John, with counsel from Earthjustice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create an emergency action plan to strengthen toxic emission rules for chloroprene and ethylene oxide, both cancer-causing chemicals now choking the parish of St. John the Baptist. EPA’s own data show that St. John residents face the highest cancer risk in the nation from air pollution due to emissions from nearby petrochemical plants, including Denka Performance Elastomer, a Japan-based company and the largest emitter of chloroprene nationwide.
“Our families are dying of cancer because for the last four years EPA has ignored our community and allowed companies like Denka to dump hazardous pollution into our air,” said Mary Hampton from Concerned Citizens of St. John. “EPA had a plan in 2016 but never followed through to protect us. EPA must fix this environmental injustice now if indeed, President Biden and Administrator Regan, intend to make good on their promises.”
Chloroprene is highly toxic and used during the production of neoprene, a synthetic rubber used to make wetsuits, beer koozies, and other materials. The cancer risk in St. John is over 15 times above EPA’s unacceptable level. Chloroprene emissions are also linked to nervous system and heart damage, gastrointestinal problems, and immune system dysfunction.
The group of residents called on EPA to inspect and force Denka Performance Elastomers to immediately reduce toxic air emissions to protect public health. The group also called on EPA to revamp, and make permanent, fenceline air monitoring for chloroprene and ethylene oxide, and to investigate the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for civil rights violations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
“EPA has long known that St. John residents face unacceptable cancer threats from breathing industrial fumes every day, yet for years EPA has failed to fulfill its basic responsibility to protect public health and fix this shocking problem of toxic air pollution and injustice,” said Emma Cheuse, Earthjustice attorney. “It’s essential for EPA to listen to the community of St. John and show that the new leadership will no longer sweep community health emergencies under the rug. And, as EPA’s own internal watchdog said in a report just issued today, it’s time for EPA to use the full extent of its authority to reduce chloroprene and ethylene oxide emissions in St. John, as well as strengthen national protection – and stop cutting corners on public health.”
“The high cancer rates in St. John the Baptist Parish are an emblematic example of environmental racism. The communities affected by the Denka facility would greatly benefit from comprehensive, protective air regulations,” said Maryum Jordan, counsel of the Special Litigation and Advocacy Project with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Action from the EPA is critical to protect the health and wellness of all Black communities and prevent further injustice.”
St. John the Baptist Parish, which has a majority of Black residents, is in a heavily industrialized area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge long known as “Cancer Alley.” According to the most recent EPA National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), seven of the ten U.S. Census tracts with the highest cancer risk from air pollution are in Cancer Alley. Yet, EPA weakened fenceline air monitoring over the community’s objection, changing from continuous monitoring to intermittent monitoring, which requires threshold triggers that may never happen, even if there are high levels of chloroprene. EPA also failed to require fenceline monitoring of ethylene oxide. What is more, EPA did not follow through on a 2016 action plan it created under the Obama administration to mitigate emissions and protect public health from dangerous levels of these carcinogens.
Among various things, the emergency request highlights the need for EPA to protect school children after the local government refused to relocate Fifth Ward Elementary School, a public school near the fenceline of Denka, where 79% of students are Black and 71% of students live near or below the federal poverty level. According to the EPA, people are even more susceptible to cancer from chloroprene exposure when exposed as children.
The request for emergency action comes as the Office of the Inspector General released a report calling on EPA to address chloroprene and ethylene oxide sources and tackle elevated lifetime cancer risks affecting nearly 500,000 people.