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(Washington, D.C.) — Immediate action from the EPA is critical to strengthen toxic emission rules and protect local residents of the St. John the Baptist Parish community in Louisiana. Residents there face the highest cancer risks in the nation from air pollution caused by emissions from nearby petrochemical plants including Denka Performance Elastomer, according to a petition filed Thursday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Earthjustice, and the group Citizens of St. John. 

Civil rights and community groups are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create an emergency action plan to strengthen toxic emission rules that limit chloroprene and ethylene oxide emissions, both cancer-causing chemicals that have harmed the health and well-being of St. John the Baptist Parish and other nearby communities of color.  

“The high cancer rates in St. John the Baptist Parish areas an emblematic example of environmental racism. The communities affected by the Denka facility would greatly benefit from comprehensive, protective air regulations,” said Maryum Jordan, an attorney with the Special Litigation and Advocacy Project with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Action from the EPA is critical to protect the health and wellness of all Black communities and prevent further injustice.” 

Chloroprene is highly toxic and used during the production of neoprene, a synthetic rubber used to make wetsuits, beer koozies, and other materials. The cancer risk in St. John is over 150 times above EPA’s unacceptable levels. Chloroprene emissions are also linked to nervous system and heart damage, gastrointestinal problems, and immune system dysfunction. 

“Our families are dying of cancer because for the last four years EPA has ignored our community and allowed companies like Denka to dump hazardous pollution into our air,” said Mary Hampton from Concerned Citizens of St. John. “EPA had a plan in 2016 but never followed through to protect us. It’s critical for EPA to fix this environmental injustice now if indeed, President Biden and Administrator Regan, intend to make good on their promises.” 

The group of residents called on EPA to inspect and force Denka Performance Elastomer, a Japan-based company and the largest national emitter of chloroprene nationwide, to immediately reduce toxic air chloroprene and ethylene oxide emissions to protect public health.  The group also called on EPA to revamp and make permanent fenceline air monitoring for chloroprene and ethylene oxide and to investigate the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for civil rights violations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. 

“EPA has long known that St. John residents face unacceptable cancer threats from breathing industrial fumes every day, yet for years EPA has failed to fulfill its basic responsibility to protect public health and fix this shocking problem of toxic air pollution and injustice,” said Emma Cheuse, Earthjustice attorney. “It’s essential for EPA to listen to the community of St. John and show that the new leadership will no longer sweep community health emergencies under the rug. And, as EPA’s own internal watchdog said in a report just issued today, it’s time for EPA to use the full extent of its authority to reduce chloroprene and ethylene oxide emissions in St. John, as well as strengthen national protection – and stop cutting corners on public health.”

St. John the Baptist Parish, which has a majority of Black residents, is in a heavily industrialized area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge long known as “Cancer Alley.” According to the most recent EPA National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), seven of the 10 U.S. Census tracts with the highest cancer risk from air pollution are in Cancer Alley. Yet, EPA weakened fenceline air monitoring over the community’s objection, changing from continuous monitoring to intermittent monitoring, which requires threshold triggers that may never occur even if there are high levels of chloroprene. The EPA has also failed to require fenceline monitoring to be made permanent, or to require fenceline monitoring of ethylene oxide at all. The EPA has also not followed through on a 2016 action plan it created under the Obama Administration to mitigate emissions and to protect public health from dangerous levels of these carcinogens. 

The emergency request highlights the need for EPA to protect school children after the local government refused to relocate Fifth Ward Elementary School, a public school near the fenceline of Denka, where 79% of students are Black and 71% of students live near or below the federal poverty level. According to the EPA, people are even more susceptible to cancer from chloroprene exposure when exposed as children than adults. 

Read the petition here 

See demographic and cancer risk maps here. 




About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes.