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EPA chief travels to ‘Cancer Alley’ to announce proposal to curb toxic air emissions

The announcement came three weeks after NBC News chronicled years of inaction by the state and federal governments in cracking down on a rubber plant in Louisiana.

LaPLACE, La. — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan traveled to the site of a rubber plant on Thursday to announce a proposal aimed at sharply reducing the amount of chemical toxins released into the air by the facility and others around the country. 

With the Denka Performance Elastomer plant looming behind him, Regan said the proposal would cut more than 6,000 tons of toxic air pollution a year, in part by requiring chemical facilities to monitor their emissions and take action when they exceed a certain level.

“This rule is absolutely a game changer for many of these communities,” he said in an interview with NBC News after the news conference. 

The announcement came three weeks after an NBC News report chronicled years of inaction by state and federal government in this industrial swath of southern Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley.” The Denka facility is among more than 150 chemical plants built along an 85-mile corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where toxic chemicals have plagued the mostly Black communities for decades. 

EPA Chief Michael Regan.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan.NBC News

Regan’s proposal was met with effusive praise from the elderly activists who have led the fight for cleaner air in St. John the Baptist Parish. 

“It’s a great day in St. John Parish,” said Mary Hampton, who turns 84 on Friday. “I just told Mr. Regan: ‘The son has come to save us. The Lord has sent us his son to save us.’”

Robert Taylor, 82, said he and Hampton didn’t hear even “a peep” from any public officials in the first few years after they founded the community group Concerned Citizens of St. John in 2016.

“It means so much to me that we now have someone in some agencies and parts of the government that not only heard our cry, they came to our defense,” Taylor added.

The Denka Performance Elastomer plant in LaPlace is one of the only facilities in the U.S. that produces chloroprene, a chemical used in the production of neoprene. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber found in products such as wetsuits and adhesives.

The EPA identified chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen in 2010. But it wasn’t until July 2016 that the agency warned the community of the dangers of the Denka plant. 

At the time, St. John the Baptist Parish had the highest cancer risk in the U.S.  Today, the cancer risk is still nearly seven times the national average, according to the EPA.

The Denka plant sits about 450 feet from an elementary school. 

The Fifth Ward Elementary School and residential neighborhoods near the Denka Performance Elastomer Plant in Louisiana.
Fifth Ward Elementary School and residential neighborhoods near the Denka Performance Elastomer Plant in Louisiana.Gerald Herbert / AP

The Justice Department sued Denka in February and demanded that it reduce emissions of chloroprene at its Louisiana plant. Last month, the federal government asked a judge to immediately force the Japanese chemical company to take action. 

“These emissions are exposing infants, children, and adults in nearby communities, such as LaPlace, Reserve, and Edgard, Louisiana, to some of the country’s highest cancer risks from industrial air pollution,” read the motion for preliminary injunction. “Given their magnitude and the rate at which they are accumulating, these cancer risks constitute an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health and welfare of parish residents.”

Denka has called the lawsuit “politically motivated” and said the company is “in compliance with its air permits and applicable law.” The company sued the EPA a month before the Justice Department’s lawsuit, alleging that the agency’s recommended acceptable level for chloroprene emissions is based on “outdated and erroneous science.” 

In a statement, Denka said it was still reviewing the EPA's new proposal and added that its position remains to “ensure the best available science is used in future regulations governing its St. John the Baptist Parish Neoprene facility."

Regan said the proposal would for the first time set "legally enforceable" safety levels for more than 80 toxic chemicals, including chloroprene. 

“We know we can detect at these levels, and we know that it will save lives and reduce exposure to cancer risks,” he said.

Regan, the first Black man to lead the EPA, visited the area in November 2021 during a tour of Southern states to draw attention to how industrial pollution plagues low-income, predominantly minority communities.

In the interview, Regan acknowledged that the federal government has been slow to take action to help the communities that surround the plant, but that the Biden administration is now doing everything in its power.

“We are using every tool in our toolbox,” said Regan, “and if I had more powers, trust me, I would use them.”

Regan said he hopes that the rule will be finalized by next spring.