Photo: Emily Kask / Contributor via Getty Images
  /  02.28.2023

The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit on Tuesday (Feb. 28) against a Louisiana chemical company in an attempt to curb the spread of harmful compounds. The lawsuit alleges that the products made in its factory present an unacceptable cancer risk to the majority-Black community living nearby.

Denka Performance Elastomer LLC makes synthetic rubber in its plant in Reserve, Louisiana. The creation of this commodity emits the carcinogen chloroprene and other chemicals in such high concentrations that it poses a dangerous cancer risk, according to the suit. Children are especially vulnerable to developing health problems from exposure to these liquids and fumes; an elementary school is located just a half-mile away from the factory.

While the Denka plant has reduced its toxic emissions over time, the Environmental Protection Agency rang the alarm bells when it first issued a report on the business’ practices in October 2022. The Justice Department sued the company on behalf of the EPA given the findings that its presence in the area presents “an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and welfare,” including elevated cancer risks.

Denka’s facility makes neoprene, a synthetic rubber used in common goods such as wetsuits, laptop sleeves, orthopedic braces, and automotive belts and hoses. Chloroprene is a liquid raw material used to produce neoprene and is dispersed into the air for those in and around the building to inhale. Reserve boasts a Black population of approximately 64 percent, while the residents of the adjacent town of LaPlace are 54 percent Black.

The DOJ’s federal complaint is the latest move by the Biden Administration aimed at tackling environmental racism in the area. The 85-mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge is officially known as the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, though more commonly referred to as Cancer Alley. The region produces one-fifth of the United States’ petrochemicals and contains several hot spots where cancer risks are far above the EPA’s permitted levels. The agency concluded last year that this disproportionately affects Black people.

“The company has not moved far enough or fast enough to reduce emissions or ensure the safety of the surrounding community,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement following the DOJ’s suit. “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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