The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pledged to conduct an overdue review of its air pollutant standards and to issue, as necessary, new rulemaking in order to resolve legal disputes with several environmental organizations and a group representing the residents of St. John the Baptist Parish — which sits in the highly industrialized River Parishes corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge — according to a proposed settlement made public Tuesday.

The cancer-inducing, toxic pollutants to which residents of St. John the Baptist Parish have been exposed for years demands, at the very least, the type of action the agency committed to in the proposed settlement, two of the groups told The Lens on Tuesday through their legal counsel, Earthjustice. 

“The ultimate test will be whether EPA listens to St. John community members, follows the science and strengthens air toxics standards to protect public health,” the Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) said in a written statement on Tuesday. “Facilities’ emissions of chloroprene and other extremely toxic chemicals are especially hazardous to children’s health and well-being and need immediate attention.”

St. John is located in the corridor along the Mississippi River Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s referred to as “Cancer Alley” because of its high levels of industrial pollution. 

Denka Performance Elastomer LLC, a Japanese company, owns and operates a manufacturing plant in Reserve, a majority-Black, low-income community in St. John Parish. In producing the synthetic rubber neoprene, the facility emits chloroprene — an agent the EPA classified as a likely carcinogen in 2010. 

The plant is the only neoprene-producing facility in the United States. Denka has, in the past, denied that its plant has caused illnesses in the community. The company reduced its chloroprene emissions by 85% compared to 2014 levels, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said in 2020. 

Still, the emission levels are nowhere near the levels the EPA has deemed safe, according to the environmental groups. According to the EPA’s own data, the air concentration of chloroprene in St. John as of September, 2021 was almost 12,000 times the ambient cancer risk of 0.002 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the groups said in their lawsuit. 

According to the EPA, chloroprene levels of 0.002 micrograms per cubic meter of air would result in a one-in-a-million increased odds of developing cancer. Chloroprene levels remained as high as 23.677 micrograms per cubic meter of air in St. John as of September, the groups said in their suit. 

The health effects of the pollution from the factory — which Denka bought from the American conglomerate DuPont in 2015 — have devastated the community, Robert Taylor, executive director of Concerned Citizens and lifelong resident of Reserve, told The Lens. 

“The real tragedy of it is, the effect of what that chemical plant did to us was so insidious — it happened gradually and quietly over the years,” Taylor said. “We witnessed our health degenerating. We did not know why the cancer was increasing.”

Over the years, Taylor said he has witnessed friends, neighbors and family members suffer at disproportionate rates, he told The Lens. 

“My mom’s brother and two of his children came down with cancer. They died from that,” he said. “My mom died from cancer. My next door neighbor, my cousins, my nephews — all these people in our community.”

Cancer rates are significantly higher for the residents of St. John than what is considered likely — after controlling for the factors of age, race and sex — according to a study conducted by the University Network for Human Rights. Residents’ cancer rates were also positively correlated with their proximity to the Denka facility, according to the study. That’s a particularly important finding, Ruhan Nagra, director of the group’s environmental justice initiative, told The Lens.

“We’re making an assumption, which I think is a good one, that the closer you live to the facility, the higher your exposure to chloroprene,” Nagra said, “And we’re finding that there’s clearly something there.”

The EPA and a spokesperson for Denka did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Concerned Citizens of St. John, LEAN and the Sierra Club filed suit against the EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in November arguing that the EPA had violated the Clean Air Act by failing to review its own air emission standards involving neoprene production and to issue a rule that, if necessary, revises those standards. 

The groups claimed that the EPA’s regulations for polymers and resins — the standards that govern the Denka facility — were outdated. By engaging in a review and rulemaking process for those standards, as required by the federal Clean Air Act, the agency could reduce air pollution, according to the lawsuit. 

In its proposed consent decree, which the EPA  published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the agency pledged to initiate a proposed action by March 2023 and take final action by March 2024 regarding its review and rulemaking process for its standards. The proposed settlement, which remains preliminary until a 30-day window elapses, also applies to a suit brought by the Environmental Integrity Project. The delay in certification may be something of a formality at this point, however, as the parties involved have already agreed to it. 

The agency’s review could lead to material improvements for the residents of St. John, the environmental groups said in their November lawsuit. For instance, the EPA would be required to remove an affirmative defense provision for civil penalty exposure related to pollution overruns during facility malfunctions, according to the suit. 

That provision is “particularly dangerous for communities in the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast region, including Louisiana and Texas, where facilities’ inadequate preparation for natural disasters can trigger malfunctions, toxic leaks, fires, and explosions,” the organizations said in their lawsuit.

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...