US Orders Emissions Cuts at Denka’s Louisiana Site

02.03.2023 - Acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the US Department of Justice has ordered Japanese plastics and rubber producer Denka Performance Elastomer to “significantly reduce” hazardous chloroprene emissions from its neoprene plant in LaPlace, Louisiana.

In a complaint, the Department asserted that the continued operation of the Denka facility presents an "imminent and substantial endangerment” to public health and welfare near homes and schools in St. John the Baptist Parish, due to the cancer risks from chloroprene emissions.

While it is somewhat unusual for the top US legal authority to deal with environmental legislation on a case-by-case basis, the investigation that began last year has been woven into the Biden administration’s campaign for social justice under the new Inflation Reduction Act.

Recently, the EPA announced it had received $550 million from the federal budget to remedy the effects of industrial pollution on minority communities. Administrator Michael Regan said the action against Denka “builds on that promise.”

The complaint cites long-term chloroprene concentrations in the air near the Denka facility that the EPA said is 14 times the levels recommended for a 70-year lifetime of exposure. Also named as a party is DuPont Specialty Products USA, which owns the land the plant stands on.

Denka Performance Elastomers, a 70:30 joint venture of Denka and compatriot Mitsui, acquired the complex from DuPont in 2015.

DuPont is a necessary party to ensure there are no delays in any actions that Denka is ordered to take to reduce its chloroprene emissions as a result of the rights DuPont holds under its lease agreement with Denka,” Regan said, adding that the Japanese company “has not moved far enough or fast enough.”

The facility manufactures neoprene, a flexible, synthetic rubber that goes into products such as wetsuits, beverage cozies, laptop sleeves, orthopedic braces, and automotive belts and hoses. Chloroprene is the liquefied feedstock used to make neoprene.

Over a decade ago, in 2010, EPA published its peer-reviewed assessment of chloroprene that said the chemical is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” The agency noted that around 20% of the total population living within two-and-a-half miles of the Denka plant is under the age of 18, a group especially vulnerable to mutagenic carcinogens such as chloroprene.

The permitting practices of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) for new industrial sites have been under scrutiny by environmental and health campaigners for some time. The state also offers generous subsidies for investment in petrochemicals and plastics on the US Gulf Coast.

In 2022, following legal action by a number of environmental protection and citizens’ organizations, a Baton Rouge District Court overturned all 14 environmental permits granted to a project planned by Formosa Plastics in St James Parish since 2020.

Under the permits, the complex, consisting of an ethane cracker and several commodity plastics units, would have been allowed to release almost 8 tonnes of ethylene oxide and 36.5 tonnes of benzene into the air annually. Both substances are regarded as carcinogenic.

After initially giving the green light in November 2020, the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for granting construction permits under the Clean Water Act, rescinded its approval in 2021. The project is still in limbo.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist