The Department of Justice seeks to force a chemical manufacturing plant to reduce its emissions in a region where the The estimated risk of cancer is one of the highest in the United States.
The action raises the stakes in a longstanding conflict between the Louisiana plant, nearby residents and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Denka Performance Elastomer plant in LaPlace, Louisiana, along the Mississippi River, is the only facility in the US that produces chloroprene, a chemical used in the production of neoprene. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber found in products like wetsuits and adhesives.
EPA identified chloroprene as probable human in 2010. Denka says he has cut emissions by about 85% since taking over the plant in 2015, but the estimated pollution-related cancer risk in the area remains one of the highest in the country, according to the EPA.
Now, the DOJ has filed a complaint to force Denka to further reduce its hazardous emissions. The complaint, first reported by NBC News, was filed Tuesday in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on behalf of the EPA under the Clean Air Act.
A Denka spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Denka facility sits along a stretch of the Mississippi River that activists and residents have dubbed «Cancer Alley» due to the unusually high risk of cancer among the communities there and the emissions that come from the many plants in the area. .
Over the years, Denka has been committed to taking steps to reduce emissions from the plant. In 2017, the company voluntarily agreed spend more than $17 million to install new emission reduction technologies.
But on-site inspections conducted by the EPA in April and May 2022 found that Denka was not complying regulatory requirements for the storage and disposal of waste chloroprene, which contributes to chloroprene emissions from the plant.
Even as the Denka facility was closed for a month in September 2021 after Hurricane Ida, a small monitoring demonstration test conducted by the Louisiana State University School of Public Health revealed detectable levels of chloroprene in two out of 10 air samples, according to the researchers.
That 2021 test, which was not a formal study, found levels of about four times above the EPA recommended maximum annual average chloroprene concentration. Air samples were taken at or across the street from a nearby elementary school.
LaPlace is in the majority-black St. John the Baptist Parish, about 30 miles from New Orleans. The plant is one of many that activists say poses undue health risks to black communities in the area.
EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights partly blames state agencies; in an october letterwrote that the failure of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health to take stronger action against Denka disproportionately exposed black residents to harmful air pollutants.
The EPA said it discovered during an investigation that state agencies had failed to provide residents with information about cancer risks associated with chloroprene levels in the area, among other issues.
In a statement Tuesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the Justice Department’s move followed its commitment to crack down on communities living near the plant.
«The company has not moved far enough or fast enough to reduce emissions or ensure the safety of the surrounding community,» said Regan, who has been vocal in her commitment to environmental justice. «This action is not the first step we have taken to reduce risks to people living in St. John the Baptist Parish, and it will not be the last.»
The Denka facility, owned by a Japanese company of the same name, was formerly a DuPont petrochemical plant. DuPont still owns the land below the Denka facility, which is why it is also named in the Justice Department complaint.