Air of Uncertainty: DOJ involved in controversial plant emitting 'likely carcinogen'

LAPLACE, LA (WVUE) - Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality documents and sources have revealed the Federal Justice Department is involved in an ongoing issue concerning the Denka manufacturing plant in Laplace.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies chloroprene as likely carcinogen and says the chloroprene emissions coming from the Denka Performance Elastomer facility put people who live and work nearby at the highest risk of developing cancer in the nation.

A sign-in sheet from a meeting hosted by LDEQ on February 1 lists the state and federal agencies reviewing the plant and its chloroprene emissions.

Those in attendance included members of LDEQ, EPA and the Department of Justice. DOJ representatives, Steven Shermer and Robyn Hanson, participated over the phone.  

Shermer is a Justice Department senior attorney, and Hanson is a DOJ trial attorney at the Environment and Natural Resources Division and works for Environmental Enforcement Section, according to the Elisabeth Haub School of Law.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on this report.

"In this particular situation, there could be very real consequences if they find certain misbehavior," Fox 8 Legal Analyst Joe Raspanti said. "But it is common for the different groups to work together.

Denka produces the synthetic rubber Neoprene, which is used to make wetsuits and women's leggings.

The facility is the only producer of Neoprene in the country.

Denka argues the EPA's classification of chloroprene as a likely carcinogen is wrong and believes the agency came to that conclusion using incorrect data.

Thursday when asked specifically about the DOJ, Denka's spokesman, Jim Harris, responded with an emailed response stating, "Denka Performance Elastomer continues to work cooperatively with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to resolve these matters."

Raspanti said even though there is no record of Denka or the plant's previous owner DuPont, breaking any laws, possible liabilities could be enforced.

"The company or possibly even the individuals can have civil liability, and the company or individuals can have possibly criminal liability for any alleged environmental misbehavior," Raspanti said.

Louisiana Environmental Action Network's Wilma Subra attending an EPA Region 6 meeting Thursday along with attorneys representing citizens who have sued Denka over its emissions.

"(EPA representatives) were very appreciative of the information we provided but could not comment on their ongoing enforcement proceedings, which are currently taking place in conjunction with DOJ," Subra said.

Denka has invested more than $25 million in reducing chloroprene emissions. The latest readings from air monitors surrounding the plant are the lowest in nearly two years.

Chloroprene emissions are regularly above the safety standard but Denka does not have to abide by that because it is not an industry standard. Congress would have to change the industry standard.

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