Environmental Protection Agency drops Louisiana environmental justice investigation

Published 10:43 am Saturday, July 15, 2023

RESERVE — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently closed its Title VI investigation into the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health, which began with allegations that the two agencies took actions that resulted in racial discrimination.

The investigations opened in Spring 2022 based on complaints related to the Denka Performance Elastomer facility in St. John Parish and the proposed Formosa Plastics facility in the neighboring St. James Parish. The EPA raised concerns over whether the predominantly Black communities surrounding these sites were faced with “disparate adverse impacts,” especially as it related to health concerns such as cancer incidence. The state agencies were urged to implement environmental justice policies.

The state of Louisiana filed suit in federal court in May 2023 to challenge the investigation. The state moved for a preliminary injunction in late June, and the EPA closed the investigation shortly thereafter.

The EPA has maintained its commitment to address potential disparate impacts through other avenues. The EPA established a consent agreement with Denka in December 2022, resulting in the plant’s agreement to improve wastewater practices and lower chloroprene emissions.

During a press conference held in April in St. John the Baptist Parish, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan announced new actions to address emissions from chemical plants and reduce cancer risks in many communities across the country.

The proposal was to update several regulations that apply to chemical plants that make synthetic organic chemicals, as well as polymers such as neoprene. The proposed updates, when fully implemented, would reduce 6,053 tons of air toxics emissions each year, which are known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious health effects. The proposal was targeted at reducing ethylene oxide (EtO) and chloroprene, which is produced at the Denka Performance Elastomer facility.

Earlier this year, Denka Performance Elastomer filed a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s assessment of health risks related to chloroprene, claiming the agency is significantly overestimating risk from chloroprene and has “refused to consider new, more accurate science.”

Since purchasing its Neoprene production facility in 2015, Denka Performance Elastomer has invested over $35 million in emission reduction projects that have reduced its chloroprene emissions by 85%.

Environmental justice activists spoke out against the recent EPA decision during a panel at ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans.

“We’d been out here fighting so hard for so long, it felt good to have someone shouldering the burden with us, and it felt good to not be gaslit,” said Dr. Joy Banner, co-founder of St. John Parish-based nonprofit The Descendants Project. “After all of that fighting, they just abandoned us… but this pain is not something that’s foreign to us. We’re used to them making the most vulnerable do all the work.”

Shamyra Lavigne said environmentalist group RISE St. James will continue pushing toward healthy air and water for their loved ones.

“Twenty years from now, St. James will be a healthy place for our children,” said Lavigne. “We’re laying the grounds for that.”