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Louisiana plant could be required to cut likely carcinogen after DOJ files injunction

Denka Performance Elastomers sits on the edge of Reserve, Louisiana near LaPlace. It's the country's sole manufacturer of neoprene.
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
Denka Performance Elastomers sits on the edge of Reserve, Louisiana near LaPlace. It's the country's sole manufacturer of neoprene.

The Department of Justice asked a federal judge for an injunction that would require a St. John the Baptist Parish industrial plant to cut emissions of a chemical that likely causes cancer.

Filed on Monday, the motion calls for Denka Performance Elastomers to invest in pollution controls that would reduce the amount of chloroprene released by the facility. It comes less than a month after the federal agency filed a lawsuit claiming the company’s emissions violated the Clean Air Act, alleging the pollution posed “an imminent and substantial endangerment” to people living nearby.

“Today’s motion asks the court to require Denka to take strong action to protect neighboring communities from the urgent dangers caused by its harmful emissions,” said Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim. “This action shows our determination to address environmental justice concerns of overburdened communities, and to protect children living and studying today near this facility.”

Denka Performance Elastomers is the country’s sole manufacturer of neoprene, a type of synthetic rubber. Neoprene can be found in anything from beer koozies to wetsuits and is widely used in the automotive and construction industries. Chloroprene, the cancer-causing chemical at the center of the lawsuit, is a key ingredient in the production of neoprene.

The plant sits in the predominantly Black community of Reserve, Louisiana, just outside of LaPlace. Thousands of residents live within a mile of the plant. An elementary school of at least 300 children sits just 450 feet away from the plant. About a mile-and-a-half away, another 1,200 students attend a local high school.

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. Air monitoring has also recorded that elevated levels of chloroprene extend across the majority of the parish.

According to the EPA, studies have shown that chloroprene poses the greatest concern to children. That’s because it can cause the body’s cells to mutate, and the younger that someone is when exposed, the more time the mutated cells have to replicate over the person’s lifetime.

On Monday evening, Denka officials said they planned to mount a "vigorous defense" against the motion for an injunction.

The company maintained its position that the EPA's allegations are "unscientific," stating the federal agency's lawsuit is based on outdated research.

“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. “This unprecedented lawsuit and EPA’s motion for a preliminary injunction will only scare people unnecessarily in the name of politics."

The company has spent years arguing against the EPA’s classification of chloroprene as a likely carcinogen, but the federal agency hasn’t changed its determination.

The company said it has cut chloroprene emissions by 95% when compared to the amount the facility released in the 1980s.

The lawsuit is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

NOTE: This story has been updated to include comment from Denka Performance Elastomers officials.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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