Updated: October 3, 2023
A major federal complaint, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (on behalf of the EPA) on February 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, brings to light how a neoprene plastic factory in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, is allegedly violating the Clean Air Act. Run by Denka Performance Elastomer since 2015 and previously by DuPont, the “Pontchartrain Works” facility, as it is known, presents an “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and welfare due to the cancer risks from Denka’s chloroprene emissions,” according to the official complaint. Denka’s facility is the only such plant emitting toxic chloroprene in the United States.
The federal complaint states that air monitoring around Denka’s facility have consistently shown high levels of chloroprene in the air—up to 14 times what’s considered a safe lifetime limit. According to the DOJ, the goal of the complaint is to compel Denka to significantly cut its chloroprene emissions for the safety and health of surrounding communities. The complaint also calls on DuPont, which rents the land out to Denka, to hold the polluter accountable for cutting emissions.
The EPA in 2010 concluded in a peer-reviewed assessment that chloroprene is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” and that “childhood may represent a potentially susceptible lifestage to chloroprene toxicity.” This is especially concerning given the close proximity of Fifth Ward Elementary School, and other schools, to Denka’s polluting facility.
Residents of Reserve and LaPlace, in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, have long spoken out against the neoprene facility situated between both communities in predominantly Black neighborhoods that has been emitting toxic chloroprene gas and other pollutants since 1968. Despite community concerns and actions, including recent class-action lawsuits, requests for Louisiana State agencies to take action, and evidence that they carry the highest risk of cancer in the country (at least 50 times the national average for residents nearest the facility), as well as international attention on environmental injustice in southern Louisiana, and ongoing U.S. EPA air monitoring and visits to the facility producing worrying findings on toxic emissions and worker safety, the plant has continued to operate.
In June the EPA abruptly closed the investigation and its discussions with LDEQ, without resolution. According to a WWNO and WRKF investigation, documents and emails show that the two agencies had negotiated a 43-page agreement that would have helped prevent communities further environmental injustices by significantly changing Louisiana’s air pollution permitting process.
We’d been out here fighting so hard for so long, it felt good to have someone shouldering the burden with us, and it felt good to not be gaslit. After all of that fighting, they just abandoned us.— Joy Banner, Co-Founder of The Descendants Project and St. John the Baptist Parish resident, told WNNO in the weeks following the case’s closure
To better understand the full impacts of environmental injustice on the Reserve and La Place communities, we encourage you to listen to and watch community testimony, which has been collected and shared by Concerned Citizens of St. John. This group has brought much attention to the environmental racism inherent in the unjust placement of industry in their communities and others like it. Environmental racism is a form of violence against Black people, and other underserved groups, and in St. John the Baptist Parish is inherently linked to the inhuman legacy of slavery in the United States.