Air of Uncertainty: Plant backtracks claim of 'completed' emissions reduction project

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Administrators at a manufacturing plant pumping out a dangerous chemical near homes and schools in St. John the Baptist Parish is stepping back from its claim that an emissions reduction project is "completed".

For nearly a year and a half, FOX 8 has chronicled the ongoing struggle facing St. John the Baptist residents.

The Environmental Protection Agency claims people who live and work nearby are at the highest risk of developing cancer in the nation due to chloroprene emissions coming from the Denka manufacturing plant in Laplace.

On Jan. 11, Denka Performance Elastomers issued a press release where plant manager Jorge Lavistida announced, "We are pleased to have completed installation and started operation of all of our emission reduction projects."

Denka voluntarily spent $30 million to reduce emissions after the EPA classified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen. Denka invested in the emissions reduction project despite claiming the EPA's study is incorrect and uses incomplete data.

But recent readings at EPA air monitors surrounding the facility show levels recording at two schools are still more than 150 times the recommended safety standard of .2 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA's recommended safety standard is only a recommendation, and not an industrial standard.

On Jan. 30, air monitors at East St. John High School recorded chloroprene levels as high as 30 micrograms per cubic meter. On Feb. 5, air monitors at Fifth Ward Elementary School recorded chloroprene levels as high as 32 micrograms per cubic meter.

"If you have a reading that high, it's also indicative of the chloroprene making it's way west of the plant into a lot of the neighborhood streets that are on that side of the facility," attorney Eb Garrison said. "We know it's in their bodies, and we know what the EPA has determined the risk is."

Garrison represents a group of residents suing Denka over the health risks associated with long-term exposure to chloroprene

After questioning Denka about the levels recently found near schools despite the emission reduction project's completion, Lavistida issued a statement claiming a "shakedown period" and "debugging and troubleshooting" were to blame.

"We are in the shakedown period which has included the safe introduction of all emission sources to the technologies, debugging and troubleshooting of the operation and the equipment. Safety of the new operation and providing adequate time for our engineers, operators and mechanics to become sufficiently familiar with the new equipment and operation are critical. This is common whenever any plant starts up new equipment. The two freeze events in January affected the progress of this phase as the plant and units were shut down for several days each time for safety reasons.  Additionally, as most other chemical plants affected, DPE had to complete repair work from the freezes after each event prior to safely starting up again...Please recall that the EPA study refers to continuous daily exposures over a 70-year period."

Lavistida's most recent statement contradicts the Jan. 11 press release.

The Louisiana Tumor Registry collects cancer rates from across the state. The agency states St. John the Baptist Parish has a lower cancer rate than the state average.

Garrison argues the tumor registry's overall cancer rate does not tell the entire story.

"When you look at that Louisiana Tumor Registry data, it's a 26 percent elevated rate of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in St. John the Baptist Parish versus to the rest of the state, a 20 percent higher incident rate of kidney cancer as opposed to the rest of the state, a 12 percent higher incident rate of breast cancer in women under 65 in St. John the Baptist Parish compared to the rest of the state," Garrison said.

For more than a year, Garrison's group has asked federal, state and local officials to act, and they do not understand why they have not.

"If your child attended the Fifth Ward Elementary school, how would you interpret the cancer risk or the air quality data? How would it affect your decision or your concerns if your child did attend the Fifth Ward Elementary school?" Garrison asked.

Denka is abiding by all state and federal laws. Denka is the only facility in the country manufacturing the synthetic rubber Neoprene, which is used to make wetsuits and other household items.

The EPA has not changed chloroprene's industrial standard since the agency classified it as a likely carcinogen.

Copyright 2018 WVUE. All rights reserved.