ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, La. — The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has certified that the only chemical plant in America producing chloroprene has reduced its emissions of the likely carcinogen by 85 percent since 2014, meeting a target the plant agreed to in 2017.
The LDEQ sent Denka Performance Elastomer a letter May 20 confirming that its neoprene production facility near Laplace had reported chloroprene emissions for 2019 that represented an 84.63 percent reduction from its reported emissions in 2014.
LDEQ Assistant Secretary Lourdes Iturralde rounded that up to 85 percent and stated it “satisfies the requirement” of Denka’s agreement with the state.
Denka is a Japanese company that purchased the chloroprene operations from DuPont in 2015, at about the same time that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first reported the plant was the source of the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the country – by far. After complaints about emissions forced DuPont to close down another neoprene manufacturing plant in Kentucky, the facility in St. John the Baptist Parish became the only chloroprene plant left in America.
The EPA declared chloroprene a “likely carcinogen” in 2010, but still to this day, Louisiana has not established a legal limit for chloroprene emissions.
After the EPA report in 2015, residents raised alarms about respiratory ailments and cancer and spikes in the chloroprene concentration in the air, especially at an elementary school close to the plant.
Environmentalists and a group of residents called Concerned Citizens of St. John called on the LDEQ to adopt the EPA’s recommended limit of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter for chloroprene emissions. LDEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown called the citizens groups “fearmongers” and dismissed the 0.2 level as mere guidance, not a reasonable legal limit.
But pressured by community groups and class-action lawsuits, LDEQ and Denka entered a consent agreement to reduce the chloroprene emissions by 85 percent by the end of 2018. That was delayed for a number of reasons, initially because of delays installing new emissions-reduction equipment at the plant, then because LDEQ required a full calendar year of data to determine if the goal had been met.
Denka says it’s spent $35 million installing special equipment to reduce the amount of chloroprene it releases into the air. The company also said the previous plant owners, DuPont, had “missed some stuff and we had to go back and recreate it.”
Denka claimed it had reduced chloroprene emissions by 86 percent in September 2019, but the LDEQ didn’t agree.
“We know those figures are inaccurate, because they switched the methodology, switched the mathematics,” said Bobby Taylor, head of Concerned Citizens of St. John.
Wilma Subra, a scientist who has led monitoring of chloroprene emissions and played a key role in forcing DuPont to shut down its Kentucky facility, said she can’t assess the accuracy of Denka’s data because the 2019 emissions totals have not been posted by LDEQ.
“I can’t make judgments one way or another,” she said.
Taylor noted an 85-percent reduction in emissions still would put Denka far above the 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter concentration of chloroprene in the air.
“Our company is focused on being a good neighbor in St. John the Baptist Parish,” Denka’s plant manager, Jorge Lavastida, said. “Our voluntary efforts in this program with LDEQ are just one example of the many ways we remain committed to our community.”
The company says it’s committed to working with the LDEQ to set a reasonable limit for chloroprene emissions. It also celebrated that a federal judge recently dismissed one of the class-action lawsuits alleging that its chloroprene had injured neighbors for decades.