While not named up front in the complaint, Denka Performance Elastomer and Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Corp., a manufacturing facility in neighboring St. James Parish, are two of the major players cited in the accusations.
Denka, which refers to the plaintiffs as "EarthJustice" (an organization cited by one of the plaintiffs) rather than the CCSJ, said there is no basis for the filing.
"The 'crisis' (that) EarthJustice seeks to accuse the Louisiana Department of Health and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Denka Performance Elastomer and other industrial companies of causing in its complaint simply does not exist," Jim Harris, a spokesperson for Denka, told Rubber News May 6. "There are no widespread elevated cancer rates in St. John the Baptist Parish compared with the state average."
Harris added that the Louisiana Tumor Registry "has been collecting cancer incidence data rates in Louisiana since the 1980s" and that "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."
The EPA has noted that liver cancer rates are not available at the parish level in Louisiana.
"Environmental activist groups have developed their own studies to refute the LTR data and analyses—manipulating data and collecting and analyzing it in non-scientific ways, to provide the results they want," Harris said. "The complaint filed by EarthJustice in January is based on this false 'science' and seeks to blame a nonexistent crisis on (Denka)."
The EPA on April 6 accepted the CCSJ complaint for investigation.
"After careful consideration, the (External Civil Rights Compliance Office, a division of the EPA) has determined that this complaint meets the jurisdictional requirements," the April 6 correspondence states.
CCSJ further alleges in its complaint that "local and state" agencies have ignored the group's desire to move an elementary school from its proximity to Denka.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to the health consequences of toxic air pollution, and one of the parish's elementary schools, Fifth Ward Elementary, is located three blocks from Denka," CCSJ states in the complaint.
The complaint continues: "EPA's 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment concluded that St. John residents face a cancer risk as high as 1,505-in-1 million—the highest cancer risk in the nation from air pollution—due to toxic air pollutant emissions from nearby facilities.
"Yet these efforts have been dismissed by local and state authorities, including LDEQ and LDH."
Denka said it has been out in front of the problem since mid-2016, and the LDEQ and LDH before that.
"The complaint claims local, state and federal officials have turned a blind eye to health impacts in the area, but in fact these agencies have been studying the situation long before these groups got involved—and choose to consider real science rather than sensational pseudo-studies," Harris said. "Since mid-2016, DPE has voluntarily monitored chloroprene concentrations around its facility and in the area, publicly providing data on ambient concentrations."
While many of the "best science" studies implemented and referenced by Denka, the EPA and non-profit and citizen groups are competing, CCSJ said symptoms of residents in St. John have included chest pain, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, and eye pain and watery eyes, among other symptoms.
More recent data from the EPA has shown that chloroprene air concentrations in St. John remained as high as 23.677 micrograms per cubic meter in September 2021; and 18.387 micrograms per cubic meter in December 2021, higher than non-cancer-causing levels cited by the EPA in a 2010 chloroprene toxicity study.
Denka disputes these one-time measurements as spurious.
"The number referenced by the group in its letter (0.2 micrograms per cubic meter) was a draft suggestion meant to be used as a baseline average 70-year exposure and has not been used by the (EPA) to make any actual rules," Harris said. "The groups largely compare instantaneous readings with that number, which it is not intended to represent."
The closest plants to St. John are Denka, an Evonik Industries plant, Union Carbide Corp.'s Taft/Star operation and a Marathon Petroleum oil refinery.
In addition, CCSJ notes in its filing that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the harms from exposure to toxic air pollution and that St. John residents have increased vulnerability to mortality from COVID-19.
"At one point in the COVID-19 pandemic, St. John the Baptist had the highest COVID-19 death rate per capita in the United States," according to the plaintiffs. "By July 2020, six of the 10 parishes with the highest COVID-19 death rates in Louisiana were in 'Cancer Alley.' "
A more localized study by Harvard University (cited by CCSJ in the Jan. 20 complaint) stated that across parishes in Louisiana, higher COVID-19 deaths were associated with higher exposure to air pollution.
"LDEQ and LDH have failed to protect St. John residents from toxic air pollution and the consequent health crisis," the complaint states.
Among other outcomes, CCSJ is seeking to have the EPA deny permitting for plants that exceed benchmark thresholds set for toxic pollutants.