EPA Investigation Finds Evidence that Louisiana State Agencies Fail To Protect Black Communities from Air Pollution

Investigation is Good First Step, But More Must be Done to Protect Overburdened Black Communities

WASHINGTON, DC- As part of an ongoing investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights found evidence that key Louisiana state agencies are failing to protect Black communities from toxic air pollution released by petrochemical companies, like Denka Performance Elastomers. The findings are part of inspections spurred by a petition filed by the Louisiana community group Concerned Citizens of St. John, with counsel from Earthjustice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In a letter to Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s (LDEQ) and the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH), EPA lays out “significant evidence suggesting that the Departments’ actions or inactions have resulted and continue to result in disparate adverse impacts on Black residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish, and the Industrial Corridor.”

The Denka facility named in the letter is infamous for spewing chloroprene, a known carcinogen, into the air in amounts far above the allowable levels set by EPA. Since December 2015, EPA has known about higher than expected levels of chloroprene around the plant, but little to nothing has been done. 

The Industrial Corridor is perhaps better known as Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land in Louisiana that is home to around 150 petrochemical plants. Residents in Cancer Alley are predominantly Black and have a 95% higher risk of getting cancer than most Americans, according to the EPA’s 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, due in large part to the state’s loose air standards. This pollution adds to the cumulative impact of industry faced by Gulf Coast communities, like those in Cancer Alley, who also bear the brunt of pollution from the fossil fuel industry and are on the frontlines of extreme weather caused by the climate crisis.   

Sierra Club’s president Ramon Cruz is in Louisiana this week and visited community members living on the front lines of the climate crisis who are disproportionately burdened by the pollution of the industrial facilities sited near their homes, schools, and churches. [Photos available below] 

In response, Robert Taylor, Executive Director of Concerned Citizens of St. John, released the following statement: 

My community has been failed time and time again by every level of government. As we wait for state and federal regulators to act, our neighbors are diagnosed with cancer at alarmingly high rates caused by toxic chemicals in the air we breathe. This is a true and dire health emergency and we are looking for urgent action by EPA to fix the problem in St. John where huge levels of chloroprene have just been found on top of the years of already unacceptable pollution we have been breathing - this must end. EPA must take strong action without delay, and must enact the strongest possible protections to advance one of its core goals of environmental justice and protect our community from industries like neoprene, chemical, and petrochemical companies allowed to pollute our air, right on our doorstep.” 

In response, Ramon Cruz, Sierra Club President, released the following statement: 

“This investigation into the egregious behavior of Cancer Alley companies and the lack of oversight by state investigation is a good first step to protect residents overburdened by air pollution for decades. But, the EPA can and must enact the strictest possible safeguards to keep companies from continuing to skirt the rules, and not allow state regulators to look the other way, while also considering the cumulative climate and public health impacts of the facilities along the corridor. We can not continue to sacrifice Black communities in Louisiana to pay the price of industrialization with their health.”

President of Sierra Club Ramon Cruz (left), pictured with Executive Director of Concerned Citizens of St. John Robert Taylor, during a visit in Louisiana. Photo Credit: Bryan Parras, Sierra Club

President of Sierra Club Ramon Cruz (center) pictured with President of Concerned Citizens of St. John Mary Hampton (left), and Executive Director of Concerned Citizens of St. John Robert Taylor (right) during a visit in Louisiana. Photo Credit: Bryan Parras, Sierra Club

About the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.