Air of Uncertainty: New OIG report pushes EPA to review chloroprene plant emission standards, levels

Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

RESERVE (WVUE) - She’s not wearing her red 0.2 T-shirt now, but Reserve resident Mary Hampton still keeps it close by.

“We’re tired of being put aside and all the years of fighting,” said Hampton.

The red shirts have become somewhat of a symbol in St. John the Baptist Parish. They are the residents fighting to lower the chloroprene emissions from the nearby Denka rubber plant to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

Cannisters called s-pods from the DPA monitor levels of chloroprene, labeled a likely carcinogen.

“In April it was 22.8, at one area that’s nowhere near 0.2 another was 5.5 another was 8.5 another was 10.1… I’m very upset it’s been too long for these numbers to be this high,” said Hampton.

Now, a new federal-level report from the office of inspector general may push the EPA to re-evaluate the acceptable levels of chloroprene and another chemical compound called ethylene oxide saying some areas may be exposed to unacceptable health risks from these emissions including the area near Denka.

Scientist Wilma Subra says both kinds of emissions are found in St. John Parish.

“To have chloroprene added to it at the same time was an absolutely outstanding development… the residents have been petitioning to the regulatory agencies both state and federal to even reduce it even more and this concerns what they’ve been saying all this time,” said Subra.

Environmental scientists hope the findings of the risk assessment will bring chloroprene levels down to be even more restrictive than 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

“Because the Denka facility has continually petitioned to have a reevaluation to have those 0.2 micrograms per meter cubed would be raised so they wouldn’t have to reduce their emissions anymore and the inspector general says there’s a chance it could need to be reduced even more… this is going to be really important to the health of the community in St. John the Baptist Parish,” said Subra.

Meanwhile, the Denka plant says it reduced emissions by more than 85 percent since 2014 and have been operating below state emission standards.

A spokesperson says in part: “DPE hopes that in the future EPA will update its estimate of risks from chloroprene and bring them in line with the greater body of scientific research on the chemical... There is no reason to suspect elevated risks of illness in the area near the facility at pre-emission reduction levels.”

While setting new emission standards is encouraging to some, those living nearby the plant say they’ve seen reports come and go. It’s action they’re still waiting for.

“Hold them accountable for 0.2, but they’re giving them leeway, give them 10 more years, 10 more years, you’re not doing anything just buying time and buying time isn’t saving lives or sicknesses everyone’s not dying but everybody’s sick,” said Hampton.

According to the OIG, the EPA has 60 days to respond to the written report.

They’re not aware if Denka or the EPA has responded to their report yet.

Denka’s full statement is as follows:

As you may know, Denka Performance Elastomer has operated the Neoprene-producing facility near Reserve in St. John the Baptist Parish since late 2015. The company has always operated well below total (or facility-wide) emission limits set forth in its permits by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The Office of Inspector General report makes assumptions based on a risk suggestion that has been proven to be exaggerated by real-world evidence of cancer incidence in St. John the Baptist Parish and additional third-party research that has shown the risk suggestion level to be as much as 130 times too low. Most important, EPA officials have repeatedly said that suggestion (known as 0.2) is not a standard and is the agency does not intend to make it one, as is memorialized in the attached letter from Peter Tsirigotis. Shortly after DPE purchased the facility, the company learned of the 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment published in late 2015, which used a risk suggestion about a lifetime exposure to chloroprene derived from a 2010 Integrated Risk Information System study to suggest higher cancer risk in the area near the DPE facility. All available, credible scientific research on chloroprene conducted both before and after the 2010 IRIS report discredit the suggestion that levels of emissions seen at the DPE facility could cause increased levels of cancer incidence. DPE reviewed information about chloroprene including a study of thousands of chloroprene workers around the world that showed no correlation between exposure and the kinds of illnesses suggested by the IRIS report. That study has recently been updated, and its initial findings were confirmed by additional years of data. In addition, DPE and others consulted the Louisiana Tumor Registry, the state-run, independent research body that compiles statistics on cancer incidence. It’s results, both at a parish level and census tract level, show clearly there is not and has never been an increase in cancer incidence near the DPE facility. (See the attached news release from a recent LTR report)

After reviewing this information, DPE began to work with regulators to review the IRIS report and develop a more advanced model for human exposure to the chemical. DPE and third-party consultants began developing a physiologically-based pharmacokinetic model (PBPK model), which the IRIS report acknowledged would be preferable to the methods it used. In the meantime, DPE developed a voluntary plan to further reduce its chloroprene emissions by 85 percent. DPE achieved its goal in just a year at a final cost of over $35 million. The company also monitored air quality at several sites near the facility, and its data shows similar reductions in concentrations of chloroprene at these sites after the projects were completed. DPE and third-party scientists recently completed the PBPK model and submitted it to EPA. After undergoing a formal peer review per EPA process, the company will soon submit it to the agency with a formal request to update the 2010 IRIS assessment of risk. The model shows the suggestion based on the IRIS assessment could estimate risk approximately 130 times higher than reality. A release about that model is attached to this email. The facility now emits over 85 percent less chloroprene than 2014. DPE hopes that in the future EPA will update its estimate of risks from chloroprene and bring them in line with the greater body of scientific research on the chemical. This research shows clearly that there is no reason to suspect elevated risks of illness in the area near the facility at pre-emission reduction levels.

Copyright 2021 WVUE. All rights reserved.

See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Click Here to report it. Please include title of story.