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Air of Uncertainty: EPA sends strong message to manufacturing plant

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LAPLACE, LA (WVUE) -

The Environmental Protection Agency has doubled down on its claim that the Denka Performance Elastomers manufacturing plant in Laplace is threatening the lives of people who live and work near the facility.

Since being singled out by the EPA in 2015, Denka has refused to recognize the federal agency's assertion that chloroprene emissions coming from the plant put residents at the highest risk of developing cancer in the nation over the long term. 

Last year, Denka filed a request for EPA to change chloroprene's classification from a "likely carcinogen" to a "possible carcinogen", claiming the EPA used incorrect data. 

"We feel we have a very strong science behind us, very good studies that show that chloroprene exposure even to workers long term exposure to workers does not cause cancer. As a matter of fact the workers showed a lower rate of cancer than the normal population," Denka Plant Manager Jorge Lavastida said in a November interview. 

Despite Denka claiming chloroprene exposure is not harmful, the EPA denied the company's request. 

In its 54 page report, the EPA said six out of six scientists found classifying chloroprene as a likely carcinogen "was appropriate and clearly justified based on the animal and genotoxicity data".

Two of those scientists even went as far to claim with known scientific data the EPA should change chloroprene's "descriptor to carcinogenic to humans" or a definite carcinogen. 

The report also suggested that studies on chloroprene collected by Denka "do not provide a reasonable basis for reassessing the human health effects due to chronic exposures to chloroprene".

Denka plans to fight the EPA's denial and will file a request for reconsideration. 

"The company's original request came after (Denka) and third-party scientists reviewed the 2010 Review and found basic scientific issues with its conclusions," Lavastida said through an emailed statement Thursday. "(Denka) has been working with the EPA to present new information and resolve issues with its conclusions and will continue to be in dialogue with EPA to ensure EPA's future requirements are based on accurate, scientifically sound information. (Denka) currently operates in compliance with all permits written by state and federal regulators and will continue to work cooperatively with LDEQ and EPA on all on-going issues." 

Lavastida also pointed out the company has "235 full-time employees, 125 resident contractors, and a total annual payroll of $35 million. Over 75 percent of (Denka) employees are residents of the River parishes, and total taxes and purchases result in a contribution to the local and regional economies of approximately $80 million per year".

The manufacturing plant is in compliance with all EPA and state standards.

The company spent more than $30 million in an effort to reduce chloroprene emissions coming from the plant by 85 percent. Those improvements were completed on January 11th. 

However, air monitors recording around the site on January 21st show levels 20-100 times above the EPA's recommended safety standard, which is not an official government standard

Denka's facility along River Rd. in St. John the Baptist Parish produces 15 percent of the world's Neoprene, a synthetic rubber used to make wetsuits, athletic gear, medical equipment and products for the military.  

Denka is the only Neoprene producer in the country.

Residents sued Denka over its chloroprene emissions, and attorneys for the residents said traces of chloroprene have been found in people's system. 

Denka attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming the residents had no proof chloroprene has caused any health issues in humans.  

The case is scheduled to be heard in federal court this month. 

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