La. Cancer Alley Residents May Finally See Environmental Justice

Reserve, Louisiana, is at the heart of an 85-mile industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as “Cancer Alley,” with more than 150 chemical plants and refineries that emit toxic chemicals at high enough levels that they must report emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cancer Alley area has some of the highest cancer risk rates in the United States due to the toxic air pollution, with some cancer risk rates at 50 times the national average, according to EPA data. People who live and work in this area may also be exposed to chemicals that can cause birth defects.

Residents in Reserve, a small, mostly Black community of 8,000 residents, can point to houses and name the residents who have or who are suffering from cancer.

“Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer,” Mary Hampton told the Guardian. “It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying. Just to sit and look at them and know you can’t do anything about it.”

But residents now say there is a sliver of hope after years of suffering, despair, and avoidance by federal officials. EPA administrator Michael Regan visited Reserve in November 2021, promising accountability. And then the agency recently opened a civil rights investigation into whether black residents’ rights were violated in the polluted corridor.

Robert Taylor, the president of the Concerned Citizens of St John and a Reserve resident, told the Guardian: “We need this investigation from the perspective of racial injustice. It is so obvious what’s happening is discriminatory.”

Community activists in Reserve have long argued the EPA should enforce its own lifelong exposure recommendation for likely carcinogenic chemical chloroprene, at 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.  Air monitoring shows the plant regularly emits quantities dozens or hundreds of times above that level. Chloroprene is emitted at a nearby plant run by the Japanese petrochemical company Denka, one of the only companies allowed to emit the chemical from its factories. Activists also alledge that the permitting process for such plants is racially biased and fails to fully include feedback from the community.

According to the EPA, chloroprene is a flammable liquid with a pungent odor. The chemical is used to make a synthetic rubber commonly known as neoprene. Neoprene is used in a wide variety of consumer goods such as footwear, gloves, athletic gear, bags, bandages, and fabrics.

Chloroprene may be a carcinogen in humans since it has been shown to cause liver and lung cancer in animals, according to the EPA. Studies in animals have found an increased risk of tumors in multiple organs. Chloroprene exposure also may cause reproductive harm, including birth defects.

Denka Performance Elastomer plant officials have objected to the EPA’s claims, arguing that the agency is using faulty science to assess the chemical’s impact on workers and residents.

Instead of saying chloroprene is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” Denka wanted the EPA to say chloroprene has “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential, arguing the agency was creating “unnecessary public alarm.”

One investigation is looking at whether the state health department failed to fully inform residents near the Denka plant about the health threats and failed to make recommendations about how to reduce chemical exposure.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, a senior organizer with the Sierra Club, described the investigations as “a groundbreaking case looking at how [Louisiana environmental department] issues permits and doesn’t identify the impact on African American, low-income communities despite placing them a risk.”

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