EPA investigates Louisiana environmental, health agencies for racial discrimination in issuing air pollution permits by Mark Schleifstein
They come five months after EPA Administrator Michael Regan promised a crackdown on permitting decisions along Louisiana’s chemical corridor. Environmental Groups have long called that area “Cancer Alley,” due to federal studies that show higher concentrations of airborne pollutants and more instances of cancer in that region than elsewhere in the state.
The investigations, which will also review permitting decisions for several other chemical plants, are in response to complaints filed by environmental groups about:
A DEQ spokesperson defended the agency's handling of the chemical plant and grain facility permits Thursday.
"We believe LDEQ’s permit process, prescribed by state law, is impartial and unbiased," said DEQ Press Secretary Gregory Langley. "LDEQ handles all issues with a fair and equitable approach. LDEQ will work with EPA to resolve this matter."
"We take these concerns very seriously," added Steven Russo, general counsel for the Louisiana Department of Health. "We have received the complaint in full from EPA and are reviewing it closely."
However, Denka dismissed the investigations in a statement.
"There are no widespread elevated cancer rates in St. John the Baptist Parish compared to the state average," said Jim Harris, a company spokesperson. He pointed to Louisiana Tumor Registry results that he said bear that out.
"The complaint (filed against Denka) claims local, state and federal officials have turned a blind eye to health impacts in the area, but in fact these agencies have been studying 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 EPA come from Earthjustice and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which are representing the Concerned Citizens of St. John and the Sierra Club in challenging the Denka and the 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 involving the permitting of the grain terminal.
The groups allege that the state's environmental quality and health departments often racially discriminate against residents, resulting in predominantly Black residents being subject to disproportionate levels of air pollution.
Several also charge the agencies with failing to review, renew or strengthen requirements of air permits issued to the facilities. They say the two departments fail to provide proper notice and comment opportunities for permits, and that they fails to fulfill the terms of federal grants that EPA gave the state to assess the causes of high cancer risk in the parishes.
The Denka-related complaint also charged the health department with failing to provide predominantly Black St. John residents with information on health threats posed by air pollutants from Denka, including the risk to students attending the Fifth Ward Elementary School.
According to a 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment by EPA, the individual lifetime cancer risk from both chloroprene and ethylene oxide was at the rate of 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 U.S. Ethylene oxide is being 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 dropped dramatically since the company agreed to install new equipment in 2018, but during the past year, the emission levels at several local monitoring sites have been greater than the EPA cancer risk level of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.
The company is operating under a 2017 voluntary compliance agreement with DEQ, but the agreement did not reduce its official emission limits, a point of contention with the environmental groups. Denka has in the past asked EPA to reconsider its listing of chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen, based on a company-sponsored peer-reviewed study that concluded the chemical caused less cancer cases that EPA found.
Probe will center on racial discrimination
In letters to attorneys representing the environmental groups, EPA civil rights compliance office director Lillian Dorka said the complaints against the two agencies underwent a preliminary review, required under federal law, before the agency decided to proceed with investigations.
The investigation of DEQ will review whether it administers its air pollution control program in ways that either have the intent or effect of subjecting individuals to racial discrimination, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and EPA's own regulations. The probe will also focus on the state's handling of Denka's permits.
The investigation of the health department will include a review into whether it subjects Black residents of the parish to discrimination by failing to provide them, other state agencies and other communities with information about health threats from Denka and other nearby sources of pollution.
Dorka said the decision to begin the investigations does not mean the agency already has determined fault.
In its complaint filed with 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 chloroprene exposure" by Sept. 30, 2021, the St. John community has not been told whether the two agencies had performed an audit of the Tumor Reigstry, required by the grant, "to determine if there are higher instances of cancer in the community due to toxic chemical emissions by the Denka Plant."
"Indeed, Dr. Edward Trapido from Louisiana State University, who conducted the audit, stated that the Tumor Registry 'does not collect data on possible contributing factors or environmental conditions to which persons with cancer may have been exposed. That is the purview of other entities and scientists,'" the complaint said. Trapido is a doctor of science and associate dean for research at the LSU School of Public Health.
"The Tumor Registry doesn’t measure exposure to chloroprene or any other chemical," said Kimberly Terrell, a doctor of conservation biology and staff scientist with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. "They measure cancer, which is only part of the equation. Our recent study using Tumor Registry data found a clear link between industrial pollution and higher cancer numbers in Louisiana. This shouldn’t be a surprise – these pollutants are known carcinogens."
In a Friday morning statement, Greenfield Chief Executive Officer Cal Williams said air and water quality and other studies conducted as part of the grain silo's permit process indicated it would not harm the community.
"Greenfield's new grain terminal doesn't just meet the EPA's most stringent air quality standards, it out-performs them," Williams said. "We care about our community's health and we have worked hard to be good neighbors. We know that any further review will find 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 comments on the EPA investigations.
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