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Councilman: We have a lot of sick people in this parish; Denka emissions monitoring intensifying

LAPLACE — As smoke continues to billow from the Denka chemical plant, neighbors remain concerned and elected officials frustrated, wondering if the air they are breathing is toxic.

Short-term answers might be provided in a few months, but a long-term solution might still be as much as a year away.

During a meeting of the St. John Parish Council this week, Dr. Chuck Brown, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said the Denka facility would be shutting down for about a month beginning Monday to install a Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO) that should significantly reduce the amount of chloroprene being released into the air.

Chuck Brown

Brown said the Oxidizer should be fully operational by the end of year, air monitoring samples taken after that time giving his office, as well as the Department of Health and the Environmental Protection, the necessary data for emission standards.

“We don’t know what numbers we are going to get,” Brown said. “It could be zero (that will be allowed to be emitted).”

Several residents voiced their fears at the beginning of the Council meeting, relating stories of their own health issues or that of family or friends. Their emotions ranged from anger and disbelief to how to best protect the younger generation from chloroprene pollution.

Acute exposure to chloroprene might include damage to the liver, kidneys or lungs, the circulatory system, skin irritation and respiratory difficulties.

Non-cancerous effects include headaches, dizziness, chest pains, light headiness and irritability.

“We have a lot of sick people in this parish,” Councilman Larry Sorapuru Jr. said. “In my mind people have been exposed.

“When you see a certain level, what I don’t know is does that mean that level is going to cause cancer.”

Sorapuru said there is no easy answer to that question, to which Brown and Dr. Jimmy Guidry of the health department agreed. Confusion has surrounded chloroprene since 2010 when the EPA reclassified it as a likely carcinogen. In 2015, the reclassification was reflected in the National Air Toxic Assessment map released by the EPA, suggesting a potential elevated risk for cancer for those living near the Denka plant, which has been in operation for 46 years.

Because of the relatively short time chloroprene has been classified as a possible carcinogen, the science community appears to have little knowledge of the chemical and its potential side affects.

Most pressing, and certainly what is on the minds of those in St. John the Baptist Parish, what level of the chloroprene being released in the air is harmful and how does that compare to what is happening at Denka.

“This is a big deal,” Guidry said. “Those risks are something we have to consider and figure out how to minimize it, mitigate it and remove it however we can.”

But regarding air quality levels, he added that has to be determined by scientists and the health departments.

He did say a panel of experts determined the current levels are not considered to be a health emergency.

Also in question is what levels of chloroprene in an individual’s system are considered to be life threatening. Clouding the issue even further is that St. John sits in proximity to a number of chemical plants along the Mississippi River, making it that much more problematic in identifying chloroprene as the cause of a person’s health problems.

“So you have to figure out if this is truly related to this chemical or is this related to other factors,” Guidry said.

Brown said he first brought the issue to Parish President Natalie Robottom in January 2016, and eventually to the public in June of that year.

He said the Louisiana environmental department entered into an agreement with Denka in January, allowing the company to install emission reduction devices while allowing the plant to continue to operate.

“The first question (in January 2016): Was there an immediate threat?” Brown said, adding that the health department eventually concluded the threat was not immediate.

During the first half of 2017 two condensers were installed and are up and running. Brown said air monitoring levels have leveled off since those condensers have come online.

Once the RTO is operational, which in at a cost of $20 million, Brown said he and EPA officials expect another reduction in levels.

“Until then, we will continue with our air monitoring and if anything changes we will take a different approach,” he said. “Until then, that is our plan and we need to work our plan.”

Although no federal standard for chloroprene emissions has been established, the EPA at one point suggested .2 micrograms per cubic meter as guidance.

Answering the concern of some parents, officials said monitoring around Fifth Ward Elementary has shown spikes of chloroprene but not continuous exposure as defined in risk estimates.

Thus health officials have found no reason that children cannot attend the school.

“What is an acceptable level is being discussed,” Guidry said “We are all working to try to answer these questions while in the meantime pushing very hard to make sure the exposure is as low as possible.”

— By Richard Meek