The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether two state agencies discriminated against black residents when they were involved in licensing decisions for two chemical plants and a grain terminal in the parishes of St. John and St. James.
The probe focuses on actions taken by the State Department of Environmental Quality and Health when DEQ reviewed permits over the past 2 years for the Denka Performance Elastomers plant, the proposed plant of Formosa Plastics Sunshine and the project Completely new exports grain terminal, according to letters sent by the EPA to environmental groups announcing the start of its investigation. They come five months after EPA Administrator Michael Regan promised a crackdown on licensing decisions along Louisiana’s chemical corridor.
Environmental groups have long called this area “Cancer Alley,” due to federal studies that show higher concentrations of air pollutants and more cancer cases in this area than elsewhere in the state.
Three states targeted in the name of environmental justice
The investigations, which will also examine the licensing decisions of several other chemical plants, follow complaints from environmental groups about:
- The continued release into the air of carcinogenic chloroprene from the Denka plant.
- Emissions of carcinogenic ethylene oxide from other chemical plants located near the Denka facility in St. John.
- The potential release of the smallest sized particulate matter, called PM2.5, at the proposed $400 million Greenfields grain terminal in Wallace.
- The potential release of particulates, nitrogen dioxide, volatile carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde and ethylene oxide from the $9.4 billion Sunshine facility proposed by Formosa Plastics in St. James , which is owned by its subsidiary FG LA LLC.
A DEQ spokesperson on Thursday defended the agency’s handling of chemical plant and grain facility permits.
“We believe that LDEQ’s licensing process, mandated by state law, is fair and impartial,” said DEQ press secretary Gregory Langley. “LDEQ handles all issues with a fair and equitable approach. LDEQ will work with the EPA to resolve this issue.”
“We take these concerns very seriously,” added Steven Russo, general counsel for the Louisiana Department of Health. “We have received the complaint in its entirety from the EPA and are reviewing it closely.”
However, Denka dismissed the inquiries in a statement.
“There are no high, widespread cancer rates in St. John the Baptist Parish compared to the state average,” said society spokesman Jim Harris. He pointed to results from the Louisiana Tumor Registry which he says confirm this.
“The complaint (filed against Denka) claims that local, state and federal authorities turned a blind eye to the health impacts in the area, but in fact these agencies investigated the situation long before these groups got involved. — and choose to consider real science rather than sensational pseudo-studies,” Harris added.
Permits granted unfairly, critics say
The complaints to the EPA come from Earthjustice and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents concerned citizens of St. John and the Sierra Club in challenging the Denka and Formosa Plastics facilities.
Meanwhile, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic is representing Stop the Wallace Grain Terminal, Inclusive Louisiana, RISE St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in their complaint regarding the grain terminal permit.
The groups allege that the state’s environmental quality and health departments often racially discriminate against residents, resulting in predominantly black residents being subjected to disproportionate levels of pollution. air.
Several also accuse the agencies of failing to revise, renew or strengthen the air permit requirements issued to facilities. They say the two departments are not providing proper notice and feedback for permits, and they are not meeting the terms of federal grants the EPA has given the state to assess the causes of the elevated cancer risk. in the parishes.
The Denka-related complaint also accused the health department of failing to provide St. John’s majority black residents with information about the health threats posed by Denka’s air pollutants, including the risk to students of Fifth Ward Elementary School.
According to a 2014 EPA National Air Toxics Assessment, the individual lifetime cancer risk from chloroprene and ethylene oxide was 2,000 cases per 1 million individuals at the census tract level. near the Denka plant, the highest in the United States.
Denka, in LaPlace, is the only manufacturer of chloroprene in the United States. Ethylene oxide is released from the Evonik Corp. facility. in Reserve and the Union Carbide Corp Taft/Star plant in St. Charles Parish, among others elsewhere in the state.
Denka’s chloroprene emissions have fallen dramatically since the company agreed to install new equipment in 2018, but over the past year emission levels at several local monitoring sites have been higher. at the EPA cancer risk level of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.
The company operates under a 2017 voluntary compliance agreement with DEQ, but the agreement did not reduce its official emission limits, a point of contention with environmental groups. Denka has in the past asked the EPA to reconsider its listing of chloroprene as a probable human carcinogen, based on a company-sponsored, peer-reviewed study that concluded the chemical caused less of cancer cases that the EPA has found.
The investigation will focus on racial discrimination
In letters to attorneys representing environmental groups, the director of the EPA’s Civil Rights Compliance Office, Lillian Dorka, said the complaints against the two agencies had undergone a preliminary review, required by the federal law, before the agency decided to pursue further investigations.
The DEQ’s investigation will examine whether it is administering its air pollution control program in a manner that has the intent or effect of subjecting individuals to racial discrimination, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EPA’s own regulations. The investigation will also focus on the state’s management of Denka permits.
The health department’s investigation will include a review to determine whether it is discriminating against black residents of the parish by failing to provide them, other state agencies and other communities with information about health threats from Denka and other sources of pollution nearby.
Dorka said the decision to open the investigations does not mean the agency has already determined fault.
In its complaint filed with the EPA, however, the environmental groups pointed out that despite grants of $86,081 to the health department and $224,932 to DEQ “to assess the health risks associated with exposure to chloroprene” by September 30, 2021, the St. John Community was not informed whether the two agencies had conducted an audit of the Tumor Reigstry, required by the grant, “to determine if there are any cases higher rates of cancer in the community due to toxic chemical emissions from the Denka plant”.
“Indeed, Dr. Edward Trapido of Louisiana State University, who conducted the audit, said that the tumor registry “does not collect data on possible contributing factors or the environmental conditions that people experience. cancer patients may have been exposed. This is within the jurisdiction of other entities and scientists,” the complaint states. Trapido is a Doctor of Science and Associate Dean for Research at the LSU School of Public Health.
“The tumor registry does not measure exposure to chloroprene or any other chemical,” said Kimberly Terrell, PhD in conservation biology and scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “They measure cancer, which is only part of the equation. Our recent study using data from the Tumor Registry found a clear link between industrial pollution and higher cancer rates in Louisiana. This should come as no surprise – these pollutants are known carcinogens.”
In a Friday morning statement, Greenfield general manager Cal Williams said air and water quality and other studies conducted as part of the grain elevator permitting process indicated that would not harm the community.
“The new Greenfield Grain Terminal not only meets the EPA’s toughest air quality standards, it exceeds them,” Williams said. “We care about the health of our community and have worked hard to be good neighbours. We know that any further examination will reveal that this project is a win for the community that will help build a cleaner future beyond the petrochemical industry. »
Formosa Plastics officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the EPA investigations.
This story was updated Friday, April 8, with comments from Greenfield Exports, and to list the doctorates of those cited in the story.