Biden Admin Sues Petrochemical Giants Over Deadly Chemical Pollution in Cancer Alley
"This will have a tremendous impact on our struggle here," said one local activist. "Over the six years we have been fighting this fight we haven't had anything as great as this to happen in terms of getting concrete action on emissions."
The Biden administration on Tuesday sued two corporations behind a petrochemical plant in Louisiana, arguing that the facility poses "unacceptably high cancer risks" to the low-income and predominantly Black residents of nearby communities and demanding significant cuts in toxic pollution.
On behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a complaint asserting that carcinogenic chloroprene emissions from Denka Performance Elastomer's neoprene manufacturing activities at the Pontchartrain Works Site in St. John the Baptist Parish "present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and welfare."
Under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act, the DOJ asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to compel Denka, a Japanese company that purchased the plant from DuPont Specialty Products in 2015, to "immediately reduce its chloroprene emissions to levels that no longer cause or contribute to unacceptably high cancer risks within the communities surrounding the facility."
The White House's lawsuit stems from an emergency action petition that Earthjustice and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law submitted on behalf of Concerned Citizens of St. John, a local advocacy group.
Earthjustice attorney Deena Tumeh welcomed the Biden administration's intervention as "a long-awaited answer to the community's repeated calls for immediate action."
"EPA is finally treating this health crisis for what it is—an emergency," said Tumeh. "We hope this complaint will lead to a swift and significant reduction in chloroprene emissions."
"We are grateful that the EPA is finally taking the first steps to protect this community. For too long, St. John has been failed by every layer of government and we are now facing a dire health emergency and the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the nation as a result."
Denka makes neoprene, a synthetic rubber used to produce wetsuits, orthopedic braces, automotive belts, and other common goods, at the plant. Chloroprene, a chemical used to produce neoprene, is emitted into the air at the facility in LaPlace and travels to other towns in the parish, including Reserve and Edgard. Pontchartrain Works Site is the only place in the U.S. where the compound is emitted.
Average chloroprene concentrations in the air near the facility are up to 14 times higher than the levels recommended for a 70-year lifetime of exposure to the chemical, according to monitoring data cited in the complaint. More than 15,000 people live within two-and-a-half miles of the plant. Fifth Ward Elementary School is located a half-mile west and East St. John High School is about a mile-and-a-half north.
"In the aggregate, the thousands of people breathing this air are incurring a significantly higher cancer risk than would be typically allowed, and they are being exposed to a much greater cancer risk from Denka's air pollution than the majority of United States residents face," says the complaint. The risk "is especially grave for infants and children under the age of 16."
Noting that the DOJ's "environmental justice efforts require ensuring that every community, no matter its demographics, can breathe clean air and drink clean water," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement that "our suit aims to stop Denka's dangerous pollution."
Robert Taylor, director of Concerned Citizens of St. John, said in a statement, "We are grateful that the EPA is finally taking the first steps to protect this community."
"For too long, St. John has been failed by every layer of government and we are now facing a dire health emergency and the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the nation as a result," said Taylor. "EPA must continue to advance environmental justice, as promised."
EPA Administrator Michael Regan reiterated the agency's commitment to doing so, describing Tuesday's move as an escalation in an ongoing fight launched after he spent five days visiting heavily polluted Gulf Coast communities in 2021.
\u201cBREAKING: @EPA has asked a federal court to compel Denka to immediately reduce chloroprene emissions from its chemical facility in St. John the Baptist, Louisiana. This is a needed win for an area with one of the highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution in the nation.\u201d— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice) 1677622332
"When I visited Saint John the Baptist Parish during my first Journey to Justice tour, I pledged to the community that EPA would take strong action to protect the health and safety of families from harmful chloroprene pollution from the Denka facility," Regan said in a statement. "This complaint filed against Denka delivers on that promise."
"The company has not moved far enough or fast enough to reduce emissions or ensure the safety of the surrounding community," said Regan. "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."
As The Associated Pressreported: "The complaint is the latest move by the Biden administration that targets pollution in an 85-mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge officially known as the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, but more commonly called Cancer Alley. The region contains several hot spots where cancer risks are far above levels deemed acceptable by the EPA. The White House has prioritized environmental enforcement in communities overburdened by long-term pollution."
Last year, EPA concluded that Black residents of St. John the Baptist Parish are disproportionately harmed by toxic air pollution after Concerned Citizens of St. John and the Sierra Club accused the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to equally protect people of color. EPA is currently pursuing an agreement with the two state agencies, which have denied the allegations.
"This is a positive move in the right direction... This brings us hope. It's been a long time coming. We need action now for our children and want this to be put in place immediately."
Denka, which has lobbied the federal government for years in a bid to undermine peer-reviewed research revealing the cancer-causing properties of chloroprene, claimed Tuesday in a statement that it "is in compliance with its air permits and applicable law."
"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," the Japanese petrochemical firm said.
Tuesday's lawsuit also names DuPont, which built the Pontchartrain Works Site in the 1960s and produced neoprene there for more than 50 years. The U.S.-based petrochemical giant still owns the land beneath the facility. As Denka's landlord, DuPont may need to provide "permission or cooperation to comply with the court's orders," says the complaint.
As The Guardianreported, "DuPont sold the plant to Denka in 2015 in a secretive deal, which The Guardianlater revealed was motivated by concerns from DuPont that it would face heavier regulation after the EPA's decision to classify chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen."
EPA is expected to propose a new rule for chloroprene emissions on March 31, according to Earthjustice, which said the agency has not updated the rule since it determined in 2010 that the compound is a likely carcinogen capable of causing irreversible damage to people's nervous, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and immune systems.
Speaking to The Guardian about Tuesday's lawsuit, Taylor from Concerned Citizens of St. John said: "This will have a tremendous impact on our struggle here. Over the six years we have been fighting this fight we haven't had anything as great as this to happen in terms of getting concrete action on emissions."
"The state government has totally ignored us—marches on the capitol, rallying—they wouldn't even give us an audience," he added. "And for the administration to come in and do this, it just validates our efforts."
The group's president, Mary Hampton, echoed that sentiment.
"This is a positive move in the right direction," Hampton said in a statement. "This brings us hope. It's been a long time coming. We need action now for our children and want this to be put in place immediately."