Christmas comes early for La. pollution fighters


A few months ago, I told you about the latest public health crisis in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” — the strip of heavily polluting refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities that line the banks of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge all the way down past New Orleans. Many of the most threatened community are predominantly poor and predominantly black — lacking much in the way of political clout to fight for the health and the people who live there.

But one of the worst stories to come out of this region involved the small town of LaPlace, which is home to a facility that manufactures a type of synthetic rubber and emits unhealthy amounts of a known carcinogen. But even though scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had reached the conclusion that the levels of pollution from the substance known as chloroprene that regularly occur in LaPlace are unsafe, regulators were completely toothless when it came to doing anything the situation. But in this case, angry residents and Louisiana’s ever-stronger network of environmental activists kept fighting until they finally got action:

A chemical plant in LaPlace that has routinely discharged an air pollutant that the Environmental Protection Agency now says is “likely” to cause cancer has agreed to try to cut its emissions by 85 percent by the end of next year.

A spokesman for the company, Denka Performance Elastomer, said the manufacturer will spend $17.5 million on technology that will reduce the airborne levels of the chemical, an organic compound called chloroprene, which is used to make synthetic rubber.

The requested reduction, which the company has agreed to abide by, comes after a year of meetings in which concerned residents and public officials have demanded that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality immediately address the issue to mitigate potential health hazards.

According to the EPA, recent studies show evidence that chloroprene causes an increased risk of liver cancer in workers making the chemical and the possibility of an increased risk of lung cancer in others. Representatives from the agency say the chemical can also cause shorter-term problems ranging from headaches and dizziness to respiratory irritation, chest pains and hair loss. Data from LaPlace-based air testing sites show that in the past year, the EPA has detected more than 330 times the concentration that the agency says could potentially be harmful to humans. The EPA assesses risk by determining the likelihood a person could get cancer.

The decision is welcome news for LaPlace citizens like 76-year-old Robert Taylor, who told the Advance newspapers that he’s been breathing foul-smelling air for the vicinity of the plant for years, and said his wife has been complaining about trouble breathing and burning eyes. Still, it never should have taken so long. For years, Louisiana environmentalists have been complaining — and with considerable justification — that the state Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, is a completely useless agency, largely a tool of the industries that it regulates and incapable of dealing with actual health emergencies. Hopefully, DEQ’s problem-solving skills are improving under Louisiana’s new Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards.

But there’s one other lesson from LaPlace, which is that if average citizens make enough noise, they can get things done even in the face of seeming government indifference. With a brand new pro-industry crew about to assume the reins at federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, community action is more important than ever. Hopefully, this early Christmas present for the people of tiny LaPlace will also serve as an inspiration to other, similar locales.

Read more about the new pollution-control plan for the Denka plan in LaPlace from the Advocate:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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