St. John's Denka plant sued by DOJ over cancer-causing emissions
Two federal agencies sued the country’s sole neoprene plant in St. John the Baptist Parish over violations of the Clean Air Act on Tuesday in hopes of forcing the company to cut emissions of a chemical that likely causes cancer.
The lawsuit was filed by the Department of Justice in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana and alleged that chloroprene emissions from Denka Performance Elastomers present “an imminent and substantial endangerment” to the health of the surrounding communities in St. John.
“The Justice Department’s environmental justice efforts require ensuring that every community, no matter its demographics, can breathe clean air and drink clean water. Our suit aims to stop Denka’s dangerous pollution,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.
Denka is the only plant in the U.S. that manufactures neoprene, a key component in products ranging from wetsuits to beer koozies. The manufacturing process relies on a hazardous chemical called chloroprene.
The lawsuit also names DuPont Specialty Products USA, LLC — a subsidiary of American chemical giant DuPont. DuPont owns the land beneath the plant and leases it to Denka. DuPont sold the plant to Denka in 2015 after learning that stricter federal regulations could be on the horizon.
The plant sits in the predominantly Black community of Reserve, Louisiana, just outside of LaPlace. For years, Denka has resisted calls from local residents to lower its chloroprene emissions to levels that the EPA deems safe.
On Tuesday, the company strongly denounced the lawsuit, stating the federal agency's allegations contradict past statements from the EPA and health data.
"EPA is taking an unprecedented step — deviating from its permitting and rulemaking authorities — to allege an 'emergency' based on outdated and erroneous science the agency released over 12 years ago," according to company officials.
The federal government has said no one should breathe chloroprene at an average concentration exceeding 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter over their lifetime. Yet, federal air monitoring dating back to 2018 shows that the concentration of chloroprene around the plant regularly averaged four to 14 times higher than what the EPA advises.
As a result, the EPA said the plant imposes an unacceptably high cancer risk on thousands of nearby residents and more than 300 students who attend an elementary school on the site’s fenceline, according to the lawsuit.
EPA officials said the chemical chloroprene is especially harmful to children because it causes the body’s cells to mutate. The younger someone is exposed, the more time the mutated cells have to replicate over the person’s lifetime, according to the EPA.
Michael Regan, EPA administrator, toured Reserve in late 2021 as part of a Journey to Justice tour and promised the residents he would take action.
“This complaint filed against Denka delivers on that promise,” Regan said. “The company has not moved far enough or fast enough to reduce emissions or ensure the safety of the surrounding community. This action is not the first step we have taken to reduce risks to the people living in St. John the Baptist Parish, and it will not be the last.”
Community activist Robert Taylor lives less than half a mile from Denka. For six years, his group, the Concerned Citizens of St. John, have railed against the company and the state to cut chloroprene emissions at the plant. On Tuesday, he applauded Regan for doing what many officials before hadn't: keeping his word.
"Can you believe a politician that actually lives up to his promises?" Taylor said. "It makes us feel like all our struggle hasn’t been in vain."
Other environmental groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, also cheered the decision. Anne Rolfes, the group's executive director, said federal action in Louisiana's industrial corridor was "long overdue."
“It’s about time. Petrochemical plants, like Denka, have been emitting toxic pollutants in ‘Cancer Alley’ for decades, and with generous tax incentives from the state, leaving poor, Black communities with cancer, asthma and a host of other illnesses," Rolfes said.
In the past, the Japanese company has fought against the government’s classification of chloroprene as a likely carcinogen, arguing the EPA’s studies were flawed and overestimated the harm posed by the chemical. The company has also pointed to the Louisiana Tumor Registry’s annual report that shows St. John’s cancer rate isn’t elevated when compared to the state.
“We believe it is critical the best available science is used to protect human health and the environment. The people of St. John the Baptist Parish deserve current and accurate scientific information regarding health risks in their community,” said Denka Executive Officer and Plant Manager Jorge Lavastida on Tuesday.
The company has cut its emissions by 85% since 2014 after installing new emissions control equipment in 2018 as part of an agreement with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
“Emissions reductions at Denka has been one of our top priorities at LDEQ, and EPA is now building on the steps LDEQ took five years ago and our continuing efforts to reduce chloroprene emissions from the Denka facility,” said LDEQ Secretary Dr. Chuck Carr Brown.
But it hasn’t been enough to reach safe levels. The plant still releases about 18 tons of chloroprene into the air annually, according to the lawsuit.
LDEQ and Louisiana’s Department of Health have also come under increased federal scrutiny after the EPA launched a historic civil rights investigation in their handling of the Denka pollution. The result of that investigation is expected to be released in March.