Air of Uncertainty: School district joins community group demanding 'clean air'

LAPLACE, LA (WVUE) - A school district has joined a community group fighting against a manufacturing plant putting a dangerous chemical into air near homes and schools.

"You know what enough is enough. We've given them enough opportunity to correct this manner, and we don't feel like it's been done in a manner we'd like to see," St. John the Baptist Parish School District Superintendent Kevin George said.

For more than a year, FOX 8 has spotlighted the chloroprene emissions coming from Denka Performance Elastomers in Laplace.

East St. John High School and 5th Ward Elementary sit less than a mile from the plant.

Environmental Protection Agency air monitors on those campuses have recorded chloroprene levels ten to 100 times higher than the safety standard.

The EPA classifies chloroprene as a likely carcinogen and has concluded the safety standard for long-term chloroprene exposure is .2 micrograms per cubic meter.

Denka does not have to abide by the safety standard because it is not an industry standard. The company has not broken any laws or guidelines.

It would take an act of Congress to change the industry standard for chloroprene emissions.

Denka argues chloroprene is not a carcinogen and claims the EPA is using incorrect data.

Twice, the EPA has told Denka operators the chloroprene classification is correct.

"The end goal is good air quality, and we won't stop until we receive it," George said. "It's right there at our schools where our kids play, where our kids come outside. They are thinking that they're just playing and having a good time, and they're actually breathing in this air. We have a problem with that, and we have to do something about it."

The EPA says the chloroprene coming from Denka puts people who live and work nearby at the highest risk of developing cancer in the country.

Denka is the nation's only producer of neoprene, which is a synthetic rubber used to make wetsuits and even women's leggings.

"Chloroprene is known to be associated with increasing the risk of cancer in humans for liver cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, colon cancer and leukemia," Louisiana Environmental Action Network's Wilma Subra said.

Wednesday, Subra attended a meeting night with school board members and residents. It was the first time the school board has publicly demanded change.

"We have to assist the entire community really to bring the levels down or either bring the levels to zero if possible. There are some serious concerns of the community, and we all have to come together," School District VP Patrick Sanders said.

Parents who attended the meeting are also demanding more from Denka.

"We need to do something about this because the kids need clean and fresh air to breathe in," parent Natasha Montgomery said.

"I'm panicking. That's my baby you know," 5th Ward Elementary parent Angela Bourgeois said.

Denka invested more than $25 million in emission reductions at the plant. The latest levels recorded are the lowest since testing began in 2016, according to Denka administrators.

"Though (Denka's) emissions do not pose a risk to its community and the company continues to operate within its permits, it recognized the community's concerns and voluntarily developed and committed to implementing significant emissions reduction measures at its LaPlace facility," plant manager Jorge Lavistida said. "So far, the company's air monitoring efforts near the facility have shown significant reductions in ambient concentrations of chloroprene and it expects continued reduced emissions will translate into further reductions in chloroprene in the air over time."

The latest levels recorded at the air monitors include .06, .04, .02, .9, .8 and .02.

Subra believes the reductions put into place are not enough.

"They agreed to do 85 percent reduction and we all knew, they knew and we knew, it wasn't going to get it anywhere near .2, and we are seeing it's still way over .2 impacting the people in this community," Subra said.

Copyright 2018 WVUE. All rights reserved.