Robert Taylor knows so many people in his Louisiana hometown who have been diagnosed with cancer that it’s easier for him to name those who don’t have the disease.
The 81-year-old Black man lives in St. John the Baptist Parish, a community nestled along a series of bends in the Mississippi River that advocates call “Cancer Alley.” When Taylor and his neighbors discovered they lived near the country’s only neoprene plant and that they have one of the highest cancer risks according to an EPA assessment, they were not completely surprised.
“Our risk for cancer is fifteen-hundred” per million people, said Taylor, who is the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, a non-profit group that works to fight pollution in the community.
The national average is 32 per million people, according to an EPA assessment from 2014. That means the risk of getting cancer in St. John the Baptist Parish is 47 times higher than it would be in the rest of the country.
“It was something we had been suspecting,” he said. “A few people survived cancer, but we saw so many occurences of cancer over the years, we didn’t know how or where to attribute it.”
It’s one of the many reasons why his group and other advocates filed a complaint with the EPA against the Louisiana Departments of Environmental Quality and Health. They alleged racial discrimination and a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in connection with the state agencies and the plant, Denka Performance Elastoer, which was formerly owned by DuPont and opened in 1969.
The EPA said earlier this month they will investigate the complaint. Darryl Malek-Wiley, a senior organizing representative with Sierra Club, which filed the complaint along with the Concerned Citizens of St. John, said he got an email from the EPA this week and an investigating officer will meet with the groups at the end of this month. Local activists were inspired to file the suit because the Biden administration has invited actions under federal guidelines.
“We’ve alleged that these two agencies violated Title VI by subjecting Black residents of St. John to disproportionate air pollution and related harm from ethylene oxide from various nearby sources in Cancer Alley and also chloroprene from Denka,” said Deena Tumeh, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the complaint on behalf of several local groups. “And the result of that disproportionate air pollution is also a very high cancer risk.”
She added: “St. John the Baptist Parish actually faces the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the nation.”
St. John’s Parish President Jaclyn Hotard said she did not want to prematurely comment on any possible outcomes or findings since the EPA just opened an investigation. “At this point we will allow the process to move forward,” she said in an email.
By virtue of their proximity to the plant, Taylor and his neighbors have been forced to become experts in the kinds of chemicals produced there.
Much of the focus in LaPlace and Reserve is on a chemical used to make neoprene, called chloroprene, which is classified as a likely carcinogen. Long-term exposure has been associated with an increased risk of cancer, according to the EPA. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber used to make everything from laptop sleeves to fan belts.
“Do they expect us to sacrifice ourselves, our lives?” Taylor asked, noting that the plant is located in the heart of a Black community. “Is this a genocidal plant? Do they expect Black people to die for the profit of these people? Are we to be sacrificed?”
What keeps Taylor up at night is the fact that there is an elementary school next to the plant that educates about 500 students. Those children, he said, are exposed to chloroprene particulates more than 400 to 700 times the EPA’s recommended maximum annual average for emissions.
Patrick H. Sanders, a school board member whose district encompasses Fifth Ward Elementary, said he is “personally concerned” about the plant’s proximity to the school.
“One, because I grew up in the neighborhood, but secondly because the children are so young—anywhere from pre-K to fourth grade—and there’s some concern for the safety of the kids and those that have been exposed over the years as well,” he said. “There are some grave concerns about the health of kids in that area that may not show up at this point but could have some long-term effects.”
There has been some talk about moving the school, but he said the conversations are all preliminary and there are no concrete plans in place.
Malek-Wiley, who said he was among those who coined the phrase “Cancer Alley” to describe the area from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, said St. John and other communities abut the plants because many chemical facilities moved onto land once occupied by plantations, and after Emancipation, many Black families were given plots of land adjacent to the old plantations.
Mary Hampton, 83, a member of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, said her family had no idea. Her father bought an estate and gave a plot of land to each of his nine children, so they all could build and live in homes near each other.
“My dad thought he was giving us a legacy, he was giving us a death sentence because all we’ve had is death in the family ever since,” Hampton said.
Malek-Wiley and other local advocates are hopeful that, with this latest legal complaint, things will be different—and they all point to a visit from EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan during his “Journey to Justice” tour last year.
In a statement emailed to Inside Climate News, a spokesman for Denka said in that “the ‘crisis’ EarthJustice seeks to accuse The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) and The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), Denka Performance Elastomer and other industrial companies of causing in its complaint simply does not exist.”
“There are no widespread elevated cancer rates in St. John the Baptist Parish compared with the state average,” the statement said. Citing data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry, the statement said St. John routinely ranks in line with or below the state’s average for overall cancers as well as “those cancers activists have sought to tie to the facility’s operations.”
Alyson Neel, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health, said in an email that her agency “takes these concerns very seriously, and is fully cooperating with the EPA.”
Greg Langley, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency’s permit process is “impartial and unbiased.”
“We are going to work with the EPA to resolve this matter, and in fact we’ve already begun speaking with them. Our hand is on the plow,” Langley said.
Adrienne Katner, a public health professor at Louisiana State University who has studied chloroprene and cancer rates, said the Louisiana Tumor Registry includes data from those who were never exposed and “is not really a good measure of what is happening along the fenceline community,”
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In a published report for the Louisiana Department of Health this month, Katner said that “for a long period of time, for many decades, the residents around here have been exposed to very high levels of chloroprene in the air.”
She said the plant began producing neoprene at the site in the 1960s, and the chloroprene levels were much higher prior to emissions controls. Those controls were put in place several years ago, but her report found that even though the plant had stopped production during Hurricane Ida in 2021, there were still high levels of chloroprene in the air.
Chloroprene, which is a likely carcinogen, is a mutagen, said Katner. “What we know about mutagens is that one molecule is enough to have an impact, and it can impact different organs in the body,” she said. Katner added that chloroprene is associated with different cancers.
Her report found other emissions like benzene, toluene, xylene, trimethylbenzene in the air and in the urine of people who live near the plant.
Lydia Gerard, a 67-year-old St. John the Baptist resident, said she lost her husband, Walter, to kidney cancer in 2018.
“He had never been sick and never went to the doctor,” Gerard said. “When he was diagnosed in 2014 we noticed blood in his urine. Within a week he had his kidney removed, and he did well until 2018 when it had metastasized to his lungs.”
Gerard said she and her husband started to worry about the emissions from the plant after the EPA’s assessment was published. They knew he had cancer and they started to wonder: “Could this have been going on for a while,” she said. “Had it been there a long time.”
Hampton, who is a member of Concerned Citizens of St. John, said she will continue to fight with her neighbors.
“I’ve lost two sisters, both to cancer, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law and my father died with cancer,” she said. “I got a brother right now who has cancer, I have a brother who died with cancer. Almost everybody in my neighborhood has somebody that either has, or has died with, cancer.
“We can’t live like this if we can’t move to go anywhere else.”