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EPA recommends Louisiana state agencies consider relocating elementary school students over toxic chemical exposure

By Amanda Watts, Andi Babineau and Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN

The Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that Louisiana health and environmental officials consider relocating students from an elementary school near a chemical plant after the federal agency found the children may be exposed to harmful levels of toxins, according to a letter obtained by CNN.

In the “Letter of Concern” addressed to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the state Department of Health on October 12, the EPA shared results of an initial factual investigation which found evidence that state officials may have failed to appropriately inform residents in the predominately Black area of the health risks of living close to the chemical plant.

The Denka Performance Elastomer facility, located about 30 miles west of New Orleans, produces the synthetic rubber material neoprene, which is used in weather-resistant products such as wet suits, according to the EPA. Neoprene is made using the chemical chloroprene, which the EPA has classified as a “likely 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 “estimated higher than expected levels of chloroprene in the community of LaPlace,” the environmental agency said.

In the 56-page letter, the EPA said residents of neighborhoods around the Denka plant have been exposed to concentrations of chloroprene that puts them at “an estimated 100-in-1 million risk of developing chloroprene‑linked 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 exposed to this increased risk of cancer.

In a statement to CNN, Denka spokesperson Jim Harris refuted the EPA claims saying, “there is simply no evidence of increased levels of health impacts near Denka Performance Elastomer’s Neoprene facility in St. John the Baptist Parish.”

Denka also disputed the concentration levels that the EPA considers when determining the risk of toxic exposure.

Considering its findings, the EPA recommends that the Louisiana health department evaluate the potential cancer risk to the school’s students and assess “protective measures,” including relocating the students to alternative locations.

Among other things, the agency also recommended that state environmental officials conduct testing of locations in the parish to determine where concentrations of chloroprene are low enough to temporarily relocate the students to.

Data from the National Center of Education Statistics cited in the EPA letter shows that 75% of students who attend Fifth Ward Elementary identify as Black. A little more than 400 students attend the school, which hosts students in pre-kindergarten through 4th grade, the school website says.

When reached by CNN on Tuesday, St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools said they have no comment about the letter.

The state Department of Environmental Quality told CNN they are in the process of reviewing the letter, but said that based on their initial review of the data, they “remain confident that we are implementing our air permitting program in a manner that is fully consistent with the federal Clean Air Act and state law and regulations.”

The department said “we take the concerns of our Louisiana citizens very seriously and remain committed to working with EPA.”

The Department of Health said in a statement that they are “closely reviewing the extensive report and letter from the EPA,” adding that they “take these concerns very seriously and are committed to health equity — which is why we are fully cooperating with the EPA’s investigation into Denka Performance (Elastomer).”

The letter is meant to provide results of the EPA’s initial analysis of issues reported to the agency. The agency is still conducting its full investigation into the complaints and is simultaneously negotiating separate agreements with the state agencies to resolve the issues being investigated.

Black residents disproportionately impacted, EPA says

In the letter, the EPA addressed disproportionate impacts of the air pollution surrounding the chemical plant on Black residents.

“There is no question,” the agency said, “that elevated cancer risk for residents of all ages and school children still exists and has existed as a result of breathing air polluted with chloroprene and that this risk has impacted and currently impacts Black residents disproportionately.”

The letter also expressed “significant concerns that Black residents and school children living and/or attending school near the Denka facility have been subjected to discrimination” through the state Department of Environmental Quality’s implementation, or lack thereof, of air pollution control programs.

The 2020 Census says 59% of residents in St. John the Baptist Parish are Black, including those who identified as Black in addition to another race category.

“Black residents of the Industrial Corridor Parishes continue to bear disproportionate elevated risks of developing cancer from exposure to current levels of toxic air pollution,” the letter said, based on the data it has reviewed thus far.

CNN reported in 2017 that the EPA installed several air sample 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 chloroprene concentration was 2.22 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter, which is more than 11 times the 0.2 upper limit of acceptability, the EPA letter said.

Denka, which purchased the facility in 2015, said it has “invested over $35 million to reduce its emissions by over 85 percent.”

In 2017, Denka signed a voluntary commitment with the environmental quality department to reduce chloroprene emissions at the plant, which included providing monthly progress reports to state officials.

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