Over the last few years, Denka Performance Elastomer, a chemical plant in St. John the Baptist Parish, has been in trouble with the EPA for potential emissions violations. Now, Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality is planning to file a lawsuit against the company.
New Orleans Advocate reporter Della Hasselle has been reporting on this story, and spoke with WWNO’s Travis Lux about what we know, and where things might go from here.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity:
Q: The Denka chemical plant makes and emits a chemical called chloroprene. What do we know about chloroprene?
Chloroprene was designated as a likely carcinogen in 2010. That was kind of an update in status. The EPA basically said that it is more harmful to people than we originally thought.
Q: And what is it used for?
It’s used to make neoprene, which is a kind of rubber-like material. It’s used to make wetsuits, orthopedic braces, pool tables -- all kinds of things. Anything that needs to be durable and waterproof.
Q: This chemical plant has had a lot of issues with the EPA over the years. One inspection found more than 50 [potential] violations of the Clean Air Act. Residents in the area have been protesting the level of chloroprene emissions in recent years. Has the company taken any steps to reduce the level of chloroprene emissions?
It was 50 potential violations of the Clean Air Act. That is going to work itself out in court. The company has done a lot to try to reduce emissions. They have spent, I believe, about $35 million to reduce emissions. They were tasked by the state to reduce chloroprene emissions by 85% of the 2014 levels. They spent most of 2017 doing that by putting controls into place -- better technology. They say they’re very close to reducing it by 85% but they’re not quite there yet.
Q: Now the state’s Department of Environmental Quality says it’s planning to file a lawsuit against Denka. What do we know about why that lawsuit is being filed?
On the record from the state we know very little. The Department of Environmental Quality will not say what the lawsuit is over. Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, who has to sign off on the suit under state, has signed off on the suit but doesn’t have any information to give us.
What we do know is that the company got in trouble in 2016 after an inspection by EPA officials who came in and found 50 potential violations of the Clean Air Act. They found a litany of problems: leaky pipes, officials were not measuring chloroprene enough, they didn’t have the right instruments to see how much they were actually putting into the air. So it’s possible that the lawsuit is over that.
Q: How has the company responded to the possibility of a lawsuit?
The company doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but over and over again company officials have said they are responsible, they’re a good company, they are good neighbors, they are trying their best to reduce emissions as much as possible, and they are committed to getting the 85% reduction in chloroprene emissions.
Q: Chuck Carr Brown -- the head of LDEQ -- once accused critics of the plant of “fear mongering.” Now, his agency is going to be part of this lawsuit. Why the change of tune?
That’s the question of the hour. That’s the same thing John Cummings pointed out -- he’s a lawyer who has been involved in many lawsuits by residents against Denka. He says it’s going to be very interesting that Chuck Brown is going to have to reverse his position and say, “actually, this could be harmful, and we are going to sue the company because of it” -- if indeed they file a lawsuit.
Q: What comes next?
Well next we wait to see what the lawsuit says, and we’ll report about it then.
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