Air of Uncertainty: EPA singles out small Louisiana community as highest cancer risk

Air of Uncertainty: EPA singles out small Louisiana community as highest cancer risk
Updated: Oct. 31, 2016 at 10:11 PM CDT
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RESERVE, LA (WVUE) - St. John the Baptist Parish resident Bobby Taylor lives in fear of something he cannot even see, but the federal government warns him there is no doubt it is there.

"We run inside and turn off the A/C, huddle and wait for it to clear. Hopeful, that it will but not really knowing exactly what it is," the retired pastor said. "It's just sort of disconcerting when you find out there is knowledge now about what this is and the potential that it has."

The potential cancer causing emission that has St. John residents like Taylor running inside is chloroprene. It is a byproduct of Neoprene production, a rubber used to make wetsuits, athletic gear even drink coozies

The Denka Performance Elastomer facility, formerly DuPont, is the only plant making neoprene in the United States, and it is tucked away in the small town of Reserve,

The facility, which employs 250 people, began production along the Mississippi River's banks in 1973.

"The demographics are not the same as it was years ago when [DuPont] first came in. So that buffer zone is something that is very very crucial to any industry right now. I think that's the main thing the community is concerned about, the quality of air that they are breathing right now. They have to be concerned about that," St. John Councilman Larry Sorapuru said.

Sorapuru's concern started after the Environmental Protection Agency released its National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) map last year.  That EPA report puts the area around Denka on high alert.

On the agency's website, it states the estimated top six areas for cancer risks nationally are in Louisiana due to Denka, formerly DuPont's, chloroprene emissions.

To give a comparison on EPA's data, the total cancer risk is 826 in a million right at Denka. Just down the road in Laplace the total risk drops to 149 in a million, and the farther you get from the plant in Kenner the total risk is 52 in a million.

"You want to make sure that your grand-kids and your kids are not exposed to the high level that we've probably been exposed for for years, unknowingly," St. John Councilman Lennix Madere said.

But someone did warned top Louisiana officials about the potential dangers of chloroprene.

In 2007, when DuPont's neoprene facility closed in Louisville, Kentucky, the Steelworkers Union district director of that region wrote then Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco about the cancer risks involved with chloroprene.

In his letter Director Billy Thompson wrote, "the trade off for a few jobs will be added pollution and a higher risk of cancer...the real costs will be borne by the citizens of Louisiana not DuPont".

"We need the jobs. We need the economy but still if we don't have a community that can survive, we don't need them," Sorapuru said.

But according to the EPA, Denka currently follows all federal and state guidelines.

In a study released by the EPA, the agency laid out a recommendation for someone who lives or works near the facility for a lifetime of exposure, roughly 70 years. The report says the safe standard for exposure to chloroprene levels should not exceed point two micrograms per cubic liter.

But that health recommendation has not been adopted as the industry standard.

Instead, the only standard Denka must adhere to allows 857 micrograms of chloroprene emissions per eight hour shift at the facility, according to plant manager Jorge Lavastida.

That standard was set prior to chloroprene being reclassified as a possible carcinogen in 2010, but even with the new data, the industry standard has not changed.

"There's areas that we differ with the conclusions," Lavastida said.

Lavastida disputes the EPA's study saying the data is insufficient and overstates risks regarding chloroprene. But even while disputing the findings, Denka has voluntarily agreed to invest $15-20 million dollars to reduce its chloroprene emissions.

"We are optimistically thinking that we can see some of those in the very near future in the next six to nine month, maybe even earlier. The majority of the emission reductions could happen in the next 12 to 18 months," Lavastida said.

"Any pressure that they can do to lower emissions the better they are, but does it mean their kids are going to get cancer? No it doesn't," Director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Luann White said.

White also believes the EPA data is insufficient and says the agency did not back up its predictive study with hard science.

However, White does admits there is a risk when dealing with chloroprene exposure.

"It's chemically similar to compounds that do have carcinogenic effects. So to me that would really make me look at it carefully just from it's chemical structure," White said. "I think at schools they need to watch it carefully because children are going to be much more susceptible than adults."

Starting in May, the EPA placed six monitoring stations around Denka to record chloroprene levels in the air...

Two were placed at schools, Fifth Ward Elementary and East St. John High School.

Some readings are near that EPA health recommendation of point two, but often the levels jump much higher.

The average reading is around 5 micrograms, but recently monitors recorded the highest levels to date. The monitors recorded 24 micrograms at the high school, 42 at the elementary school and 26 micrograms at the river levee.

Remember the long term exposure recommendation in the EPA's report is point two.

"The NATA classification is a likely carcinogen so we want to reduce this risk factor by reducing the amount the public is exposed to," Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality's Greg Langley said.

The state called in the LSU tumor registry to give an overall look in St. John the Baptist Parish of mortality rates of cancer. The organization found the average in St. John Parish is lower than the state average. But the agency does admit the state average is well above the national average. LSU Tumor Registry experts say they need to look at more data to study the long term effects of what chloroprene does to people.

"I think I'm really glad to provide this data, but it's only descriptive data. It doesn't say anything about a certain person, Jane or John Doe who actually lived very close by and got all of this exposure. I have no information on exposure. I only have the data on the disease or the cancer," Dr. Susanne Straif-Bourgeois said.

According to the scientific studies, chloroprene does have a strong correlation between cancer found in lab rats and mice over the long term.

However, at this time, experts say there is no scientific correlation in humans, but there has not been a long term study on chloroprene exposure in humans.

"The monitoring only started this year. We don't have a large data set. It's hard to say what the emissions were 10-years-ago or 20-years-ago.

Residents feel extremely uneasy with a wait and see approach.

"What is it? They are going to test it out on our community and our children. What are they doing?" Taylor asked

The EPA and DEQ do have the ability to shut the plant down but the agencies do not classify Denka as a imminent and substantial endangerment to the community.

"Get the emissions down," Langley said. "It's a risk. Get the risk down."

But while that risk is negotiated between EPA and Denka, Reserve residents watch a plant, the federal government says puts them at the highest cancer risk, continue to release emissions into the air near their homes and schools.

"They want to plan it over a period of time. Well we don't have a period of time," Pastory Lionel Murphy said. "We have people who are breathing this air now. So you already know how you can fix the problem to a great degree and EPA knows how they can fix the problem. But it costs money. I say either shut it down or spend the money now. One life is worth more than all the money they can spend on that plant. "

Denka is a Japanese based company that purchased the plant from DuPont in November of last year, five days before the EPA's NATA map was released.

Denka has not broken any EPA emissions regulations

Fox 8 reached out to EPA to see how the standard could be changed, but we have not heard back from the federal agency.

We also reached out to former Governor Blanco and have not gotten a response.

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