DOJ Files a Lawsuit against a Neoprene Manufacturing Plant in Louisiana

DOJ Files a Lawsuit against a Neoprene Manufacturing Plant in Louisiana

Natalie Johnson
Posted 03/08/2023

On February 28, 2023, the United States Department of Justice filed a complaint on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against Denka Performance Elastommer LLC. The Denka manufacturing facility is located along the Mississippi River in LaPlace, Louisiana and produces chloroprene, a chemical used in the production of neoprene.

Image of the Denka Neoprene Plant – Bryan Tarnowski / The Guardian

Neoprene is a synthetic rubber that is used in products such as: wetsuits, beverage cozies, laptop sleeves, orthopedic braces, automotive belts and hoses, gaskets, and adhesives. This manufacturing facility is the only one in the entire United States that produces chloroprene, a liquid raw material that is emitted into the air.

The complaint filed under section 303 of the Clean Air Act asserts that Denka’s plant operations present an imminent and substantial danger to public health and welfare due to the cancer risks connected to chloroprene emissions. The DOJ and EPA are hoping to compel Denka to significantly reduce their chloroprene emissions and consider the waste ‘hazardous waste.’

In 2010 the EPA published a peer review study of chloroprene that concluded it is likely to be carcinogenic to humans. The federal government has determined that no one should breathe chloroprene at an average concentration higher than 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter over a 70-year lifetime without being expected to exceed a 1 in 10,000 risk of contracting cancer linked to chloroprene exposure.

If children are exposed to a concentration greater than 1.2 micrograms from birth to their second birthday, in just those two years they will have exceeded the same level of risk as stated above. The complaint claims that emissions from the facility remain so high that children breathing the air around the facility’s fence line will exceed their lifetime excess cancer risk in just 2 years.

US Census data reports that between 15,000-17,000 individuals live within 2.5 miles of the facility and approximately 20% are under the age of 18. Nearly 1,000 of those individuals are children under the age of 5.

Neighborhoods and Fifth Ward Elementary School are located near the Denka Plant – Gerald Herbert / AP / NBC News

Fifth Ward Elementary school is located only 450 feet from the facility and educates around 300 young children. Another 1,200 children attend East St. John High School located 1.5 miles north are also exposed to carcinogens. This is significant because children under the age of sixteen are especially vulnerable to mutagenic carcinogens like chloroprene.

According to the complaint filed last week, the air monitoring conducted by the EPA and Denka itself have consistently shown long-term chloroprene concentrations in the air over the years. Some tests have even shown the concentrations to be 14x higher than the levels recommended for a 70-year lifetime of exposure.

An informal study completed by Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health revealed detectable levels of chloroprene in 2 out of 10 air samples taken at the elementary school. The detected levels were 4x above the EPA’s recommended maximum annual average chloroprene concentration and were gathered in September 2021 following Hurricane Ida when the plant was out of commission for a month.  

EPA Air Monitoring Results – The Advocate

The suit states, “Thousands of people breathing this air are incurring a significantly higher cancer risk than would be typically allowed, and they are being exposed to a much greater cancer risk from Denka’s air pollution than the majority of United States residents face.”

The suit comes after the EPA entered into a Consent Agreement with Denka and issued a final order to address the plant’s waste management practices on December 28, 2022. Two inspections were conducted in the Spring of 2022 and inspectors observed Denka’s process of transferring ‘poly kettle strainer waste,’ a chloroprene waste product, to an outside open-air brine pit. This waste contributes to the levels of chloroprene released into the air. Workers were not observed wearing proper personal protective equipment and EPA inspectors documented elevated levels of chloroprene in the air surrounding the brine pit. The EPA also found that Denka did not adequately educate the public or provide information about the cancer risks associated with chloroprene levels in the area.

Denka disposed of more than 4 million pounds of waste contaminated with chloroprene at the River Birch Sanitary Landfill in Avondale between 2019 and 2021. This waste disposal is a possible violation of federal laws concerning the disposal of hazardous waste. River Birch was not named in the suit as there is no suggestion the landfill violated EPA rules.

In accordance with the consent agreement, Denka will stop placing ‘poly kettle strainer waste’ in the brine pit and must instead meet hazardous waste regulatory requirements for both storage and disposal of the waste as the waste is currently considered hazardous waste by the EPA. The company is also required to provide proper PPE to employees who come into contact with this waste. If Denka successfully follows these guidelines, it is estimated that nearly 2 tons of chloroprene emissions will be eliminated each year. The EPA is also providing Denka with the opportunity to show the material no longer meets the definition of hazardous waste through ongoing tests, if they can prove this, they will be relieved of the disposal requirements.

Denka has addressed the suit and claimed that since 2015 they have reduced emissions by 85% and the steps taken to reduce the plant’s emission have cost them more than $35 million.  However, the plant still releases roughly 18 tons of chloroprene into the air each year.

The company also cited a Denka sponsored study conducted in 2022 which concluded there was no increased cancer risk, and they feel it is important to provide residents with accurate updated scientific evidence, however some of its peer reviewers have criticized the study. Denka believes the EPA’s legal action is unprecedented, flawed, and the company takes issue with an alleged ‘emergency’ based on outdated science.

Last week, the Denka Executive Officer and Plant Manager Jorge Lavastida addressed the suit, “We believe it is critical the best available science is used to protect human health and the environment. The people of St. John the Baptist Parish deserve current and accurate scientific information regarding health risks in their community.”

This is not the first time Denka has clashed with the EPA. The Japanese company has fought against the EPA’s classification of chloroprene as a carcinogen and believes the federal agency is overstating the harm the chemical could pose to the public. They have also cited the Louisiana Tumor Registry’s annual report multiple times which shows St. John’s cancer rate is not elevated when compared to the entire state.

The community and an activist group, ‘The Concerned Citizens of St. Johns” has voiced their concerns for over six years related the elevated cancer risk surrounding the community and have applauded the EPA for finally listening to their pleas. Activists and residents dubbed the area “cancer alley” because of the elevated cancer risk and emissions from plants along the Mississippi River.

Plant Located Near Mississippi River Dubbed “Cancer Alley” – Gerald Herbert / AP / The Guardian

Michael Reagan, EPA Administrator, visited St. John in his Journey to Justice tour and has pledged to the community that the EPA would take action to protect citizens from harmful chloroprene pollution. He addressed the complaint last week, “The company has not moved far enough or fast enough to reduce emissions or ensure the safety of the surrounding community. This action is not the first step we have taken to reduce risks to the people living in Saint John the Baptist Parish, and it will not be the last.”

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Natalie Johnson

Natalie Johnson is the previous editor/website administrator for MaintenanceWorld.com, and is currently a student at Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law.

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Natalie Johnson

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