Environmental Justice Win: U.S. EPA Takes Action on Toxic Chemicals in Cancer Alley

This week, frontline communities are counting an environmental justice win as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) takes action on toxic chemicals in Cancer Alley, a region of Southern Louisiana where residents face significantly elevated risks of cancer and other serious health problems living amid more than 200 industrial facilities along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. 

Signed by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the new rule sets tighter pollution limits on facilities that produce, emit, or store six hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals linked to plastic and petrochemical production: ethylene oxide, chloroprene, vinyl chloride, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and ethylene dichloride. The EPA estimates that cutting emissions of these chemicals will reduce cancer risks from breathing in toxic air and reduce smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 23,700 tons per year. The rule also requires regular and transparent air quality monitoring to better protect the primarily Black and low-income communities that face the disproportionate burden of pollution, accidents, and harmful health effects on the fencelines of industrial facilities across this region of Louisiana. 

The EPA’s move comes years after Administrator Regan’s visit to Cancer Alley in fall of 2021. During his visit, Regan met with members of frontline organizations Concerned Citizens of St. John and RISE St. James Louisiana, as well as other representatives of Louisiana fenceline communities, who shared their concerns and testimony, and called for serious government action to address the environmental injustices they face. In 2022, the EPA filed a complaint against synthetic rubber neoprene manufacturer Denka, in St. John the Baptist Parish, forcing the facility to cut its emissions of toxic chloroprene gas.

Administrator Regan cared. He is the first person who ever came down to see us about this. What he did today is what no one else tried to do. It’s the beginning of us being able to breathe clean air. He listened to citizens, not politicians, and that makes a difference, because our local politicians aren’t truthful about pollution. President Biden appointed the right person to lead the EPA, and I’m elated to have been a part of this announcement.

— Sharon Lavigne, RISE St. James Louisiana Founder and Executive Director

Administrator Regan came and he listened for the whole time. We had community members tell their stories, we took him to the Burton Lane neighborhood sandwiched between two industries, and he was able to see how these community members are affected. It was the first time we really felt heard and seen.

— Shamyra Lavigne Davey, RISE St. James Louisiana Executive Assistant

The EPA’s new rule for industrial facilities in Cancer Alley will require plants emitting toxic chloroprene gas to comply with tighter ambient air standards and monitoring requirements within 90 days. Loopholes that had allowed facilities to exceed chemical emissions on their air permits during shutdowns, startups, and natural disasters—such as hurricanes—have been closed. Facilities now planned to open in Cancer Alley, like Formosa Plastics’ plant in St. James Parish—which, if built, would release at least 7.7 tons of toxic ethylene oxide every year—are now subject to these new stricter air quality and monitoring rules in order to be approved.

While this new rule is a win, frontline experts stress this is just the start of addressing environmental injustice in Cancer Alley. For example, since the new rule’s air monitoring requirements for some of the newly regulated chemicals, such as ethylene oxide, will take several years to take effect, residents have effectively no publicly available monitoring data on the six chemicals targeted. This data can help residents make decisions about evacuation needs, and provide both the EPA and communities with evidence to hold polluters accountable. Meanwhile, residents must rely on community air monitoring—which industries continually oppose and their state government has not supported.

Petrochemicals and Plastics Continue to Contribute to Environmental Racism

In 2021, the United Nations human rights experts declared the growing corridor of petrochemical, plastic, and other industrial plants a serious case of environmental racism, and called on the U.S. Government to deliver environmental justice in communities all across America, starting with St. James Parish, and stressed corporations’ responsibility, suggesting they conduct environmental and human rights impact assessments as part of the due diligence process. Ultimately, the region’s pollution burden will only grow unless permitting of new facilities is stopped.

Take Action

Frontline communities in Cancer Alley and across the world are forced to fight for their lives—though they should not have to. Please help advance the case for environmental justice for all by telling President Biden to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical and plastic facilities. Better regulations on industry are important, but we can only end pollution and injustice if we stop them at the source.

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