Cancer Alley is an 85-mile-long area along an industrial stretch of the Mississippi River known for its abundance of petroleum plants and, as the name implies, cancer cases. Research shows that there are higher-than-normal amounts of lung, stomach, and kidney cancer among the mostly African American residents in living in Cancer Alley. But one of the most concerning and controversial chemicals in Cancer Alley is chloroprene. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), chloroprene is likely to cause cancer in humans. In 2015, the chemical giant DuPont sold its neoprene plant in LaPlace, Louisiana, an area of Cancer Alley, to Denka Performance Elastomer, headquartered in Tokyo. In the process of manufacturing neoprene, a synthetic rubber used in things like wetsuits, hoses, and orthotic braces, the Denka plant releases chloroprene into the air.
Today, on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act against Denka Performance Elastomer LLC (Denka) to compel Denka to significantly reduce hazardous chloroprene emissions from its neoprene manufacturing facility in LaPlace, Louisiana. The complaint asserts that the LaPlace plant’s operations present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and welfare due to the cancer risks from Denka’s chloroprene emissions.
“We allege that Denka’s emissions have led to unsafe concentrations of carcinogenic chloroprene near homes and schools in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “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.”
“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 emissions from the Denka facility,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “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. This action is not the first step we have taken to reduce risks to the people living in Saint John the Baptist Parish, and it will not be the last.”
“The Justice Department and EPA have worked closely together to bring decisive action to address Denka’s harmful air pollution,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Today’s complaint is part of our ongoing effort to advance environmental justice in overburdened communities through the enforcement of laws.”
Denka’s facility manufactures neoprene, a flexible, synthetic rubber used to produce common goods like wetsuits, beverage cozies, laptop sleeves, orthopedic braces, and automotive belts and hoses. Chloroprene is a liquid raw material used to produce neoprene and is emitted into the air from various areas at the facility.
According to the complaint, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, air monitoring – conducted by both the EPA and Denka over the past several years – consistently shows long-term chloroprene concentrations in the air near Denka’s LaPlace facility that are as high as 14 times the levels recommended for a 70-year lifetime of exposure. This complaint seeks to compel Denka to eliminate the public health endangerment caused by its emissions by greatly reducing the levels of chloroprene to which this community is being exposed.
The complaint also names DuPont Specialty Products USA LLC – the owner of the land beneath Denka’s facility and Denka’s landlord. DuPont is a necessary party to ensure there are no delays in any actions that Denka is ordered to take to reduce its chloroprene emissions as a result of the rights DuPont holds under its lease agreement with Denka.
In 2010, EPA published its peer-reviewed assessment of chloroprene that concluded the chemical is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” According to guidance that looks at impacts of certain cancer-causing chemicals to children, EPA also acknowledged that children accumulate excess lifetime cancer risk from breathing chloroprene faster than adults. Approximately 20% of the total population living within two-and-a-half miles of Denka are children under the age of 18, and about 800 to 1,000 children are under the age of five. Children are particularly vulnerable to carcinogens like chloroprene because they change DNA and harm cells, meaning they are “mutagenic.” Denka’s chloroprene’s emissions reach more than 300 young children who attend the 5th Ward Elementary School, located within approximately 450 feet of Denka’s facility. Approximately 1,200 children who attend East St. John High School, located roughly a mile-and-a-half north of Denka, are also exposed to the facility’s chloroprene emissions.