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Study Finds High Cancer Risk Near Plant In A Majority Black Part Of St. John the Baptist Parish

Travis Lux
Denka Performance Elastomer was sued by the state after violating EPA clean air laws.

A newly published study finds that residents in a majority-Black area of Saint John the Baptist Parish face extremely high rates of cancer and other illnesses.

The study, conducted by the advocacy group the University Network for Human Rights in collaboration with Stanford University, surveyed residents in the area surrounding the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in LaPlace. The plant produces chloroprene, a synthetic rubber and known carcinogen.

In 2017, the plant agreed to work to reduce its emissions.In 2016, an inspection of the plant by the Environmental Protection Agency found 50 potential violations of the Clean Air Act.

The plant has long been controversial among local residents, who have complained of industrial pollution and claimed the air pollution is making them sick and giving them cancer.

But there’s been a dearth of public health data to prove those claims.

Ruhan Nagra, author of the study and supervisor in human rights practice at the University Network for Human Rights, said they decided to conduct the study after residents reached out to them.

“What people told us was, ‘We know anecdotally that there are abnormally high levels of cancer in our community, it seems like everyone's dying from cancer,’” she said.

What she found was that the closer residents lived to the Denka plant, the higher their cancer risk was.

For its part, the state has committed to conducting its own research in the region around the Denka plant, but did not respond to requests for updates on that study or its release.

The University Network for Human Rights previously released a version of this study in 2019 and faced criticism at that timefor its methodology, which relied on self-reporting.

Nagra said that those issues were addressed and the study was peer-reviewed before being published in the scientific journal Environmental Justice this week.

Support for WWNO’s Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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