RESERVE, La. (BRPROUD) — The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is calling for the Fifth Ward Elementary School in Reserve, Louisiana to be temporarily closed due to high levels of toxic exposure from the nearby Denka Performance Elastomer plant.

The school is just one mile away from the manufacturer and locals have been calling on the state and federal government to investigate the heavy impact of the so-called “Cancer Alley” on the majority Black population in the area.

A 56-page report from the EPA External Civil Rights Office suggests “the cancer risk from exposure to chloroprene emissions due to LDEQs actions and decisions clearly fall ‘substantially disproportionately’ on the Black residents who live near the Denka facility, as compared to non-Black residents.”

The EPA has used a benchmark for air pollution when it comes to cancer risk at an excess of 100 in 1 million. The report states that air pollution control measures were implemented in 2018 and have reduced some of the air pollution from the Denka plant, but they remain high. One census tract close to Denka in 2018 showed four times the acceptability for cancer risk in a 70-year lifetime. Another tract showed twice the accepted amount.

The EPA is particularly concerned with the school’s location because exposure to chloroprene as a child can increase the risk for cancer later in life.

“Reasons for this susceptibility include more rapid cell division during early life resulting in less time to repair DNA mutations; more rapid expansion of mutant cells leads to cancer. The contribution to lifetime cancer risk from a single year of exposure to chloroprene is greater if that year occurred during childhood,” the report stated.

Congressman Troy Carter has recently spoken out about the issue. He said if the report is true, it is “unacceptable” and the health of the surrounding residents has to be taken into account.

“We encourage and have worked closely with the EPA administrator to come in and to really pay attention and drill down on issues that are impacting the community,” Rep. Carter said. “Now this is a classic example of our young people being exposed to chemicals that unfortunately seem to be even more dangerous for children.”

The population of the school is 75% Black with 93% of the population within a mile of Denka identifying as Black. St. John the Baptist Parish is 58.5% Black as a whole. 

The report alleges that the Louisiana Department of Health did not provide enough information to the community about the risk they were under. The department also reportedly said there was not a safer location for the students at the school to be relocated to.

LDH spokesperson released this statement on the issue:

The Louisiana Department of Health is closely reviewing the extensive report and letter from the EPA. We take these concerns very seriously and are committed to health equity — which is why we are fully cooperating with the EPA’s investigation into Denka Performance Elastomer.

LDH Spokesperson

The Interim Superintendent for St. John the Baptist Schools said they were only made aware of the report through the media and are reviewing it now. She did not comment on if there are plans to move the Fifth Ward Elementary students to another location.

The report by the EPA External Civil Rights Office claims the Louisiana Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality did not do enough to mitigate the exposure or educate the public on the risk. With the surrounding population being a majority Black the EPA alleges the exposure is violating civil rights.

“There is systemic racism in our permitting agency and closures like this, addressing it, shutting down that school, are just one small step toward addressing what is really a deep-rooted problem,” said Anne Rolfes, Director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Denka Performance Elastomer Spokesperson Jim Harris released a statement in response to the report:

There is simply no evidence of increased levels of health impacts near Denka Performance Elastomer’s Neoprene facility in St. John the Baptist Parish. Data compiled by the Louisiana Tumor registry (LTR) have repeatedly shown for decades there are no widespread elevated rates of cancer in the parish or in the census tracts neighboring the facility compared with state averages. In fact, St. John routinely ranks in line with or below the state’s averages for overall cancers and the types of cancer EPA suggested to be linked to chloroprene exposure. EPA’s letter miscalculates risk in the area because it relies on an exposure suggestion of 0.2 micrograms/cubic meter, which was based on a faulty and outdated exposure model. Other credible research on chloroprene, including a best-practice model submitted to EPA, shows the 0.2 risk suggestion to be significantly overestimated, which is consistent with LTR data. Since purchasing the facility in 2015, DPE has invested over $35 million to reduce its emissions by over 85 percent. In addition, the company has conducted ambient air monitoring at sites throughout the community since 2016, results of which have shown similar reduction in concentrations measured.

Jim Harris, Denka Performance Elastomer Spokesperson

Families who have lived in the area for generations say otherwise and believe not enough is being done to reduce emissions. Mary Hampton, a member of Concerned Citizens of St. John, can list over a dozen family members and friends who have died from cancer in the area.

“They all should get involved right now. The state, the local government, the federal government, everybody should get involved,” Hampton said. “This is pertaining to people’s lives and it’s not just the children. There are people that live on the fence line closer than I am to it. You can go to every household you can find somebody that’s died from cancer, or dying with cancer, or have respiratory sicknesses.”

She has lived in the area for the majority of her life and understands people need the plant for jobs, but wants the air quality to improve for those most exposed to it.

“The grown people have a choice of staying here or leaving but these children are there because we have sent them to school,” Hampton said. “I have a great-grandchild who goes to school there and I worry about him every day because I know there are emissions there, there’s nowhere for him to go.”

The EPA concludes with an offer of cooperation to work together to address the complaints and concerns discussed throughout the letter.