The Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that Louisiana health and environmental officials consider relocating elementary school students near a chemical plant after the federal agency found children could be exposed to harmful levels of toxins, according to a letter obtained by CNN.
In an Oct. 12 “Letter of Concern” to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the State Department of Health, the EPA shared the results of an initial factual investigation. The black zone of health risks of living near a chemical plant.
The Denka Performance Elastomer facility, 30 miles west of New Orleans, produces synthetic rubber neoprene, which is used in weather-resistant products such as wetsuits, according to the EPA. Neoprene is made using the chemical chloroprene, which the EPA has classified as a “probable human carcinogen,” a substance capable of causing cancer.
The Denka facility has been on the EPA’s radar for years after a 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment revealed “higher than expected levels of chloroprene in the LaPlace community,” the environmental agency said.
In the 56-page letter, the EPA said residents in neighborhoods around the Denka plant were exposed to concentrations of chloroprene that “have a 100 in 100 million risk of developing chloroprene-related cancers over a 70-year lifetime.” “.
The agency found that children who attend the nearby Fifth Ward Elementary School in St. John the Baptist Parish are also at increased risk for cancer.
In a statement to CNN, Denka spokesman Jim Harris refuted the EPA’s claims, saying, “there is no evidence of increased health impacts near Denka Performance Elastomer’s Neoprene facility in St. John the Baptist Parish.”
Denka also discussed the concentration levels the EPA considers when determining the risk of toxic exposure.
Based on its findings, the EPA recommends that the Louisiana health department assess the cancer risk to students at the school and evaluate “protective measures,” including relocating students to alternative locations.
Among other things, the agency has also recommended that state environmental officials test parish locations to determine where chloroprene concentrations are low enough to temporarily relocate students.
National Center for Education Statistics data cited in the EPA letter show that 75 percent of students attending Fifth Ward Elementary identify as black. A little more than 400 students attend the school, which enrolls students in Kindergarten through Grade 4, according to the school’s website.
When reached by CNN on Tuesday, St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools said they had no comment on the letter.
The state Department of Environmental Quality told CNN they are in the process of reviewing the letter, but said based on their initial review of the data, “they remain confident that we are implementing it in a manner that is fully consistent with the air permitting program. The federal Clean Air Act and state laws and regulations.”
The department said “we take the concerns of our Louisiana citizens very seriously and remain committed to working with the EPA.”
The Department of Health said in a statement that it is “closely reviewing the EPA’s extensive report and letter,” adding that it “takes these concerns very seriously and is committed to health equity, which is why we are cooperating fully with the EPA. Investigation into Denka Performance (Elastomer) “.
The letter is intended to provide the results of EPA’s initial analysis of problems reported to the agency. The agency is still conducting a full investigation of the complaints and is simultaneously negotiating separate settlements with state agencies to resolve the issues under investigation.
In the letter, the EPA addressed the disproportionate effects of air pollution surrounding the chemical plant on Black residents.
“There is no question,” the agency said, “that a high risk of cancer still exists for residents and school children of all ages and that it has existed as a result of breathing chloroprene-contaminated air and that this risk has affected them and now has a disproportionate impact on black residents.”
The letter also “expressed grave concern that blacks and school children who live and/or attend school near the Denka facility have been discriminated against” because of whether or not the state Department of Environmental Quality has implemented air pollution control programs.
The 2020 census reports that 59% of St. John the Baptist Parish residents are black, including those who identified as Black in addition to other racial categories.
“Black residents of Industrial Corridor Parishes continue to be at disproportionate risk of developing cancer when exposed to current levels of toxic air pollution,” the letter says, based on the data it has reviewed so far.
CNN reported in 2017 that the EPA had installed air sampling monitors near the St. John the Baptist Parish plant. At a monitoring station near Fifth Ward Elementary, from February 2020 to February 2022, the average concentration of chloroprene was 2.22 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter, 11 times the 0.2 acceptable limit, the EPA letter said.
Denka, which bought the facility in 2015, said it has “invested more than $35 million to reduce its emissions by more than 85 percent.”
In 2017, Denka signed a voluntary commitment with the department of environmental quality to reduce chloroprene emissions from the plant, including providing monthly progress reports to state officials.