EPA promises to review air pollutant standards in proposed agreement with groups representing ‘Cancer Alley’ community

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

The carcinogenic toxic pollutants that residents of St. John the Baptist Parish have been exposed to for years demand, at the very least, the kind of action the agency committed to in the proposed settlement, two of the groups said. to The Lens on Tuesday through their legal counsel, Earthjustice.

“The ultimate test will be whether the EPA listens to members of the St. John community, follows the science, and strengthens air toxics standards to protect public health,” said Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish. and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). written statement on Tuesday. “Emissions of chloroprene and other extremely toxic chemicals from the facilities are particularly dangerous to the health and well-being of children and require immediate attention.”

St. John is located in the corridor along the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, called “Cancer Alley” due to its high levels of industrial pollution.

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

The factory is the only neoprene production facility in the United States. Denka has in the past denied that his factory has caused disease in the community. The company reduced its chloroprene emissions by 85% from 2014 levels, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said in 2020.

Still, the emission levels are far from the levels the EPA has deemed safe, according to environmental groups. According to the EPA’s own data, the atmospheric concentration of chloroprene in Saint John in September 2021 was nearly 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 risk of developing cancer. Chloroprene levels remained as high as 23.677 micrograms per cubic meter of air in Saint John in September, the groups said in their complaint.

The health effects of pollution from the plant – which Denka bought from US conglomerate DuPont in 2015 – have devastated the community, Robert Taylor, executive director of Concerned Citizens and longtime Reserve resident, told The Lens.

“The real tragedy is that the effect of what this chemical plant did to us was so insidious — it happened gradually and quietly over the years,” Taylor said. “We have seen our health deteriorate. We didn’t know why the cancer was increasing.

Over the years, Taylor said he’s seen friends, neighbors and family members suffer at a disproportionate rate, he told The Lens.

“My mother’s brother and two of his children had cancer. They died of it,” he said. “My mother died of cancer. My next door neighbor, my cousins, my nephews – all those people in our community.

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

“We make the 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 see there’s clearly something there- down.”

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

Concerned Citizens of St. John, LEAN and the Sierra Club filed suit against the EPA in US District Court for the District of Columbia in November. production of neoprene and to enact a rule which, if necessary, revises these standards.

The groups claimed EPA regulations for polymers and resins — the standards that govern Denka’s facility — were outdated. By engaging in a review and rule-making process for those standards, as required by the federal clean air law, the agency could reduce air pollution, the lawsuit alleges. .

In its draft consent decree, which the EPA published Tuesday in the Federal Register, the agency committed to initiate proposed action by March 2023 and take final action by March 2024 regarding its review and rule-making process for its standards. The proposed settlement, which remains preliminary until a 30-day window has passed, also applies to a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Integrity Project. However, the delay in certification may be something of a formality at this stage, as the parties involved have already agreed to it.

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

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

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