Meet the small La. town with America’s highest cancer risk


I’ve written on this site about problems in what the locals in Louisiana call “Cancer Alley” — the massive petrochemical facilities that mostly line the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. For decades, this industrialized corridor has reflected the push and the pull between Louisiana’s desperate need for well-paying blue-collar jobs and corporations who exploit the state’s rich natural resources with little or no concern for the environment. Historically, the jobs argument has won out — even though Louisiana, for a combination of factors, has ranked as second in the nation in cancer. Air and water pollution from these plants is one of those factors.

Now comes the story of a tiny Louisiana town called Reserve which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment, has the highest cancer risk from air pollution of any community in America. The frustrating part of this story is the government officials were warned years ago about the risk from a chemical plant once owned by the conglomerate DuPont and recently bought by Japanese-based Denka — and have largely done nothing. A New Orleans station, WVUE, recently told the story of this community in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish that is under siege from toxic air pollution:

RESERVE, LA (WVUE) – St. John the Baptist Parish resident Bobby Taylor lives in fear of something he cannot even see, but the federal government warns him there is no doubt it is there. 

“We run inside and turn off the A/C, huddle and wait for it to clear. Hopeful, that it will but not really knowing exactly what it is,” the retired pastor said. “It’s just sort of disconcerting when you find out there is knowledge now about what this is and the potential that it has.” 

The potential cancer causing emission that has St. John residents like Taylor running inside is chloroprene. It is a byproduct of Neoprene production, a rubber used to make wetsuits, athletic gear even drink coozies. The Denka Performance Elastomer facility, formerly DuPont, is the only plant making neoprene in the United States, and it is tucked away in the small town of Reserve. The facility, which employs 250 people, began production along the Mississippi River’s banks in 1973.

The cancer risk for people who live in the shadow of the Denka facility is a ridiculously high 826 in a million, according to the EPA study; some of the other highest U.S. communities in the EPA study are just down the road. Union officials insist that they warned Louisiana’s  top officials that the plant in Reserve is bad news, to no avail:

In 2007, when DuPont’s neoprene facility closed in Louisville, Kentucky, the Steelworkers Union district director of that region wrote then Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco about the cancer risks involved with chloroprene.  

In his letter Director Billy Thompson wrote, “the trade off for a few jobs will be added pollution and a higher risk of cancer…the real costs will be borne by the citizens of Louisiana not DuPont”. 

“We need the jobs. We need the economy but still if we don’t have a community that can survive, we don’t need them,” (St. John Councilman Larry) Sorapuru said.

WVUE reported that monitors placed at key sites around the community, including public schools, have found that airborne readings of chloroprene frequently exceed the levels that the EPA’s scientists have recommended for long-term exposure. But the state and federal officials who regulate the plant have shown no urgency in taking action. The report said that new owner Denka is looking to voluntarily spend as much as $15-20 million on new pollution controls. That could make a difference, but the bigger picture is that Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” deserves better than this toothless regulation.

Find out more about the pollution problems in Reserve, La., from WVUE:

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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