NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A town of 30,000 people, Laplace sits in the shadows of major oil and gas plants. With one of the highest cancer rates per capita, it has earned the name “cancer alley.”
And for years, people living here have questioned what’s making them, their family and friends so sick.
In 2015, scientists looked to the air. They found chloroprene, an element the EPA has labeled a “likely carcinogen." For years people had been breathing something they couldn’t even see.
Chloroprene is a chemical used to make neoprene rubber, a substance used in everything from wet suits to car parts. And the only plant in the United States that produces it: the Denka plant, situated in the middle of Laplace.
“They’ve been exposed to it for 49 years - that’s an awful long time. ...All the stories the citizens have are acute impacts, short-term impacts and chronic impacts that match all the data we have on chloroprene,” said Wilma Subra with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
In 2015, the EPA published a report of the link between chlorprene and cancer. In response, last year Denka said it had spent more than $30 million to reduce chloroprene emissions and finished installing “four major pieces of equipment and other projects to reduce emissions.”
Subra, a technician with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, studies the numbers every two weeks and discusses her findings with concerned citizens.
“If it was happening in your house, wouldn’t you want to know whats going on? ...Ignorance is not bliss in this case,” she said.
In 2016, the EPA placed six monitoring stations around Denka to record chlorprene levels in the air. Two were placed at Fifth Ward Elementary and East St. John High School.
Subra says the average chloroprene concentration varies because of plant production, wind direction and other variables that change daily. She says when examining the highest chloroprene concentrations per year, the numbers have trended downward, but not near enough.
“It’s about 150-500 times over .2, and the data that’s coming in for 2018. If they cut their production today and cut it back enough it would be immediate, but they are the only producer in the United States, and say they wont cut production,” said Subra.
That figure - .2 - appears on T-shirts and signs, and comes up in conversations in Laplace all the time.
“We’re still fighting and will continue to fight until they bring it down to where its acceptable,” said Mary Hampton.
Hampton has lived in Laplace her whole life, and most of her extended family have also made their homes here. She says they all live in fear every day.
“Everytime you go to the doctor for a test you wonder if you’re going to find cancer. You get a bump, you keep watching - hey, it might be cancer,” said Hampton.
Hampton and others haven’t been scared to fight back. Since the 2015 report linking chloroprene and cancer, lawsuits are stacking up against the plant, including a series of class action lawsuits alleging the plant is violating citizens' constitutional right for health and safety.
“I think our corporations, they don’t have hearts, they don’t have compassion, and so the only thing they pay attention to is a judgement or the possibility of a judgement that hurts their wallet,” said attorney Hugh “Skip” Lambert.
Lambert says a federal judge signed an order remanding their class action case back to state court, which he says gives them a much better chance at getting their case heard.
Another class action lawsuit alleges the Denka plant causes residents physical pain like heart and thyroid problems, respiratory, vomiting and other issues.
Children are not immune. The families of 20 children and young adults have also filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit saying the plant caused illness, birth defects and cancer within their children.
Gen. Russel Honore with the Green Army says lawsuits aren’t the only way to fight back.
“The bill we’re looking at is to have the legislature have LDEQ when the EPA sets a standard follow it there should be no exception,” said Honore.
The EPA recommends 0.2 micrograms of chlorprene emissions per cubic meter, but it’s not the law. Honore says he’s been in conversations, pushing for both local and state lawmakers to fight for the people, not oil and gas.
The job of the state is to protect the people first. Not in Louisiana. The operative word in Louisiana is business comes first, business and jobs the health of the people come last. That’s why we have such poor outcomes and one of the highest cancer rates in america. That’s a crying shame and that needs to be fixed," said Honore.
Meanwhile, Hampton says she’s still scared to go outside, driven inside by something she can’t even see.
“We have the front porch I love the front porch everyone gathers on the front porch you cant do that anymore you sit there and by the time you get inside you’re sick... you cant breath you’re coughing and its terrible,” said Hampton.
Hampton says when she and much of her extended family all decided to move here, it was supposed to be a great start for them.
“We want clean air... you couldn’t get 50 dollars for your home because you live in cancer alley...we fighting for the kids coming up our kids our grandkids. We’re fighting for the entire community,” said Hampton.
She says a great start turned into something they can’t escape.
Denka leaders denied our request for an on-camera interview citing several lawsuits against the plant. In a statement, Denka says in part they are going to continue gathering and compiling air monitoring reports at the five locations through 2019 and will continue to work with EPA in future air impact reviews.