The Plant Next Door

A Louisiana town plagued by pollution shows why cuts to the EPA will be measured in illnesses and deaths. When the Environmental Protection Agency informed people in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, last July that the local neoprene plant was emitting a chemical that gave them the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the country, the information was received not just with horror and sadness but also with a certain sense of validation.
Sharon Lerner
March 24, 2017
Nine-year-old residents Jaden James, left, and Lance Bovie pause on Robinet Drive, less than a block from the fence of the Dupont/Denka plant in Reserve, St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, on Feb. 20, 2017.
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For years, many of the people living on this little square of land between the train tracks and the Mississippi River levee have felt they suffered more than their share of illnesses. Troyla Keller has a rash and asthma that abate every time she leaves the neighborhood and worsen when she returns. Augustine Nicholson Dorris had breast cancer and seizures. And David Sanders has trouble breathing, a tumor on his thyroid, and neurological problems. “It took a lot away from me,” said Sanders, whose speech is slurred, when I visited the area a half-hour west of New Orleans in February. Several people spoke of shuttling their children and grandchildren to the nearby ER for asthma treatments. And many residents also frequent the neighborhood’s two busy dialysis centers. A third is under construction.

“Everybody felt there was too much sickness,” said Robert Taylor, 76, whose wife had breast cancer and is now struggling with multiple sclerosis. Taylor’s daughter Raven suffers from gastroparesis, a relatively rare autoimmune disorder that has left the 48-year-old unable to digest food and bedridden, after an attempt to treat the condition surgically led to a staph infection. But there were plenty of other unusual conditions, too. Trollious Harris, who has spent most of her life a few blocks from the Taylors, suffers from myasthenia gravis, another autoimmune condition, which has caused her muscles to weaken. Kellie Tabb has a rapid heartbeat and recently met two other people in the area who have the same condition.

“Everybody has had someone that has died of cancer,” said Taylor’s daughter Tish as she stood in the doorway of the family’s home on East 26th Street. To an outsider like me, the neighborhood looked festive, with kids playing on neatly mown lawns and Mardi Gras beads adorning many of the doors. But when Tish, who is 53 and has lived on the block since she was 4, looked at the nearby houses, she saw the people who had fallen ill. “Mr. Henry died of cancer, and he had two sons who were diagnosed with it, too. And Miss Sissy, who lives down the block toward the river, she had pancreatic cancer and died this month. Ms. Diane died of cancer, too,” Tish said, ticking off the casualties on her fingers.

“Something is clearly not right with this area,” said Lydia Gerard, whose husband developed kidney cancer at age 64 that recently metastasized and spread to his chest. Gerard herself suffers from sudden bouts of diarrhea and anemia as well as vitiligo and other autoimmune problems. Her lips and eyes often swell inexplicably and she has itchy welts on her arms and legs that get better when she goes to work 30 miles away — and come back with a vengeance when she returns home. While I was interviewing Gerard and her husband in their two-story home, I also broke out in hives.

Besides being a likely human carcinogen, chloroprene, the gas the plant has been releasing into this community for 48 years, is known to weaken immune systems and cause headaches, heart palpitations, anemia, stomach problems, impaired kidney function, and rashes. So the EPA’s news, bad as it was, provided a form of relief. After all these years, a government agency was helping to explain the residents’ strange predicament. The people living next to the plant might be sick, but at least they weren’t crazy.

The air pollution crisis in St. John the Baptist may be the best illustration of why we need the EPA — and how the imminent slashing of the federal agency’s budget will be measurable in illnesses and deaths. Since 2002, the EPA has periodically published a report estimating the expected number of cancers per million people in every census tract based on airborne emissions from industry. For most of the country, the expected number of cancers due to this pollution is somewhere between zero and one. The national average is .968.

But for the people living in the census tract within St. John the Baptist that is home to the Taylors, Kellers, Sanders, and Gerards, the risk is dramatically higher. According to the EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment, which was published in December 2015, the lifetime risk of cancer from air pollution in this area, which is less than 2 square miles, is a staggering 777 per million people, by far the highest in the country and more than 800 times the national average. Other census tracts near the plant had risks that were more than 200, 300, and 400 times higher.

No one I spoke to in this patch of the parish seemed surprised by the idea that the synthetic rubber plant just over the chain link fence from their houses might have a role in the community’s health problems. DuPont opened the factory on a former sugar plantation called Belle Point in 1964, and its smokestacks have been pumping out chloroprene over this mostly African-American neighborhood since 1969. Many of the people living here can trace their roots back to slavery, when their ancestors worked on nearby plantations, and some of their homes are former slaves’ quarters. And now the giant property next door looms over their lives in other ways. Most can see the stacks from their windows. And the residents I spoke with said that at times, odors wafted from the factory that smelled “pungent and rotten,” “almost like a singed plastic” — or, as Mary Hampton put it simply, “like poison.”

Hampton said she gets sinus attacks when the chemicals are at their smelliest — and she is not alone. Although there has been no formal study of health effects in the area, Wilma Subra, a consultant who has been working with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network to help the residents of St. John the Baptist respond to the news about chloroprene, recently surveyed 150 people who live near the plant about their symptoms after what she calls “odor events.” Eighteen reported having sinus problems, 31 reported burning eyes, 25 reported headaches, and 14 stomachaches. Others reported diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and rashes.

Lois Frank, who is 65 and has lived within a few blocks of the plant since it opened, said that at first, the intense smells threw many people in the neighborhood into a panic. “My mother would call the plant and say, ‘You must have a leak,’ and they’d send somebody in the truck. And then they would always tell us, ‘We don’t smell anything,’” Frank remembered recently. “After a while, people got tired so they just stopped calling. What’s the point in calling if they ain’t going to do nothing about it?”

Almost 50 years later, the fumes remain, along with the sense of being powerless to stop them. On a mild evening a few months ago, when Robert Taylor arrived home from a trip to New Orleans, the smell was “so bad, you couldn’t even walk, you had to run inside.” He called 911 to report it. When a fire official arrived a few minutes later, his response was validating, if not helpful. “He got out of his vehicle and he said, ‘Oh my God, do they really expect you people to live in this? You understand you got a problem here?’” Taylor recalled. The problem the fire official was referring to wasn’t the smell, according to Taylor. “He said, ‘You know this is one of the biggest taxpayers in the parish!’”

Until recently, Lois Frank thought of the smelly cloud from her powerful neighbor as just a nuisance. “We knew we were getting emissions,” said Frank. Her husband, who died of leukemia at age 52, was one of four people in her immediate family to get cancer. “We just didn’t know how bad it was. We didn’t know about the chloroprene.”

A little-known division of the EPA called the Integrated Risk Information System helped quantify exactly how bad chloroprene is. IRIS evaluates the toxicity of chemicals and in 2010 concluded that the colorless chemical that is the building block of neoprene, one of 28 the plant releases into the air, was a likely human carcinogen. The classification was based in part on research showing that the rats and mice exposed to the stuff developed cancers of the thyroid gland, lung, kidney, liver, mammary gland, and fore-stomach. The 2010 report referred to studies showing that chloroprene increased the risk of cancers in people, too. Studies of four different human populations around the world showed that exposure to the chemical increased the risk of liver cancer, in one case by more than 700 percent. Other studies IRIS reviewed showed a link to lung cancer. In one study of Russian shoe factory workers exposed between 1960 and 1976, chloroprene increased rates of leukemia and kidney cancer as well as liver cancer. The study also showed chloroprene elevated the risk of colon cancer and deaths from a combination of all cancers.

It took too long for the EPA to get the research on chloroprene to the people who needed it most. Although the agency published its air toxics data, which included a map that clearly showed the risk in St. John the Baptist in December 2015, it wasn’t until the following May that John Vandenberg, director of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, wrote to the regional office to point out the elevated cancer risk in the parish, which houses the U.S.’s only neoprene-manufacturing plant and is the major source of chloroprene emissions in the country.

Vandenberg’s letter, which identified chloroprene as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” revealed how slowly the critical information made its way through government. The National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens described chloroprene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in 2005, as the letter noted, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer had classified chloroprene as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 1999, 17 years before the letter was sent.

Still, the dangers chloroprene poses to particular communities would likely not have been quantified at all if not for IRIS, which has been a frequent target of industry in the years it has assessed the toxicity of chemicals. And the knowledge of these health effects wouldn’t have been combined with data on the release of hazardous chemicals to calculate the localized risks of cancer from air pollution if not for another branch of the federal agency: the EPA’s Air Toxics Assessment Group. That information made it from the obscure report to the people of St. John the Baptist Parish thanks to yet another division of the agency, the regional office, which met with a local environmental organization, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, in June and has since helped arrange for air monitoring around the plant.

The EPA was created in 1970 in large part to right the power imbalance between industry and residents of polluted communities like St. John the Baptist. Richard Nixon was president at the time and appointed William Ruckelshaus, or “the enforcer,” as he came to be called, to lead the agency. Among Ruckelhaus’s victories was getting companies to comply with the newly passed law to curtail air pollution, the Clean Air Act. Ruckelshaus even managed to get Union Carbide, then a powerful chemical company, to reduce emissions at its plant in Marietta, Georgia, after the company initially threatened to fire workers if it was forced to comply with the EPA’s new pollution emissions schedule.

Forty-seven years later, our current scandal-ridden Republican president is handling environmental enforcement differently. Donald Trump, who threatened to eliminate the EPA entirely during his campaign, has instead installed as its administrator former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who built his career trying to undermine the agency. “Polluting Pruitt,” as some call him, has already begun making cuts that will eviscerate the EPA’s ability to protect Americans from dangerous industrial pollution.

The EPA declined to answer questions about specific cuts, but the new administration is likely to shrink or eliminate every branch of the agency that helped convey the risks of chloroprene to the people of St. John the Baptist. Leaked versions of the agency’s budget show that the administration plans to zero out funding for local air pollution monitoring. And cuts are expected to the regional offices.

Trump’s proposed budget also cuts most funding for the Office of Environmental Justice, which was devoted to protecting communities like the one in St. John the Baptist, according to Mustafa Ali, one of the founding members of that office. I spoke with Ali the morning he resigned from the agency he served for 25 years, most recently as the senior adviser for environmental justice and community revitalization. He told me he chose to leave because he has “a different set of values and priorities” from the new administration and that low-income communities and communities of color contend with disproportionate environmental pollution because, “lots of times, people don’t put as much value on their lives.”

IRIS, the only division of the agency that independently assesses the toxicity of industrial chemicals, is almost certain to fall victim to the cuts as well. The proposed budget calls for $2.6 billion in cuts to the EPA, including $233 million from the Office of Research in Development, which includes IRIS. Republicans on the House Science Committee had already made it clear at a hearing in February that elimination of IRIS was one of their three priorities for the EPA. And the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the think tank run by Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s EPA transition team, identified IRIS as “top on the list” of environmental programs to cut.

“I’m sure it’s a key thing they want to get rid of, IRIS, because of how influential it is,” one EPA staff member told me. “If they kill that, they kill the ability to regulate. The whole world looks at an IRIS evaluation. It really does draw the line in the sand and tells people where the risk is. Once that’s defined, you can go back to the water concentration and the air concentration and show that you have to do something. Without IRIS, you might be able to measure something in the air or water, but you won’t have any proof that it’s a problem.”

Republicans have also targeted funding for both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute for Environmental Health, which publishes the National Report on Carcinogens, the two other governmental bodies that recognized the cancer risk of chloroprene years ago. Together with IRIS, these two programs provide the only significant counterweight to industry’s own research. As we’ve seen many times before, that science is often biased by companies’ interest in maintaining the profitability of their products.

DuPont’s long history of keeping troubling scientific research about its products secret underscores the need for independent scientists to evaluate chemicals — and make those findings public. Indeed, while the people of St. John the Baptist didn’t know which chemical they were inhaling, let alone the dangers it posed, DuPont was well aware that chloroprene presented health risks even before the company started neoprene production at the plant in St. John the Baptist in 1969.

DuPont introduced neoprene — a flexible substance that would go on to be used to make everything from gaskets and hoses to mouse pads, fly-fishing waders, and wetsuits — in 1931. As it did with PFOA, a chemical used to make Teflon, the company carefully studied the effects of chloroprene. As far back as 1938, DuPont scientists conducted experiments with the chemical used to make the new synthetic rubber, and by 1941, they expressed concerns about its safety.

That year, John Foulger, who was then head of DuPont’s in-house toxicology unit, Haskell Laboratory, issued a report called “Toxicity of Chlorabutadiene,” which is another name for chloroprene. The report, which DuPont submitted to the EPA in 1992, more than 50 years after it was written (and which I accessed through the EPA’s website), detailed a list of complaints made by DuPont workers exposed to the chemical that is eerily similar to the list of problems now plaguing the people of St. John the Baptist: dizziness, headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, diarrhea, and rapid pulse.

Foulger, who labeled the report “personal and confidential” in 1941, also summarized Haskell studies showing that dogs exposed to chloroprene developed the same type of problems the neoprene workers had. Foulger recommended re-examining workers who experienced abnormal pulse or blood pressure after being exposed to chloroprene within a few days and if the symptoms continued, then lowering their exposure “to avoid the production of definite tissue damage.”

DuPont scientists also exposed guinea pigs to chloroprene and according to the 1941 report found that when there was more than 50 parts per million of the chemical in the air, “there may occur circulatory abnormality.” Prolonged exposure, Foulger noted, “may produce serious circulator abnormality, and even lead to collapse.”

Even back then, the scientists worried about how ongoing exposure to chloroprene might affect people. “It has been our general experience with other compounds producing this same type of circulatory abnormality that the longer the man is exposed to concentrations of toxic chemical capable of producing circulator abnormality, the less rapidly does he recover when removed from exposure,” Foulger wrote 76 years ago.

Despite the concerns, DuPont began making neoprene in an industrial neighborhood called Rubbertown in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1941, and began production at its St. John the Baptist plant in 1969. Two years later, Haskell scientists performed another chloroprene experiment, exposing 10 rats to chloroprene gas. Several of the animals developed head tremors and “incoordination of legs” and three of the animals died after the exposure, according to a 1971 document that DuPont sent to the EPA in 1992.

The company appears to have alerted at least one other part of the government to the risks. In 1974, John Zapp, who was then the director of Haskell Labs, sent a letter to the acting director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, expressing concern over the potential carcinogenicity of chloroprene. At that point, there was already ample evidence to suggest the chemical was a health hazard. “The primary responses to chloroprene appear to be central nervous system depression and significant injury to lungs, liver, and kidneys,” stated a bulletin the CDC published in January 1975. The bulletin referenced the Russian study that showed elevated rates of lung and skin cancer among workers exposed to the chemical and noted that animals exposed to chloroprene had a decreased number of white blood cells, which play a central role in immune function.

But this information never made it to the people in St. John the Baptist, who by then were already smelling the emissions from the plant. By 1988, according to internal DuPont documents obtained by The Intercept, the company was concerned enough about the dangers of chloroprene to set its own limit for round-the-clock exposure at 0.5 parts per million (ppm). Exposure above that limit would “not necessarily result in any adverse affects,” according to a 1994 document marked “for DuPont use only.” In 1988, the company also set an “acceptable exposure limit” for workers exposed to the chemical for 12 hours: 10 ppm. By 1999, the company had lowered that limit to 2 ppm, presumably based on new discoveries it had made about the health effects of chloroprene.

By 2002, people living near Rubbertown, Kentucky, where the DuPont neoprene facility was one of more than a dozen chemical plants, had begun to complain about cancer and other health problems. That year, DuPont scientists embarked on their own study of workers at the company’s neoprene plants in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Ireland. While researchers around the world had found that chloroprene exposure elevated the risks of various cancers, the DuPont study, which was funded by the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers and published in 2006, found almost no evidence that it increased the risk of developing cancer. That year, the company cited the study in an effort to get scientific groups to reclassify chloroprene so it was no longer a potential human carcinogen, according to Rubber & Plastics News.

Under pressure from workers and environmental groups in Kentucky, DuPont closed its Rubbertown plant in 2008. The year before, the United Steelworkers, who had called attention to the health risks of chloroprene, wrote to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to warn that consolidating neoprene production at the St. John the Baptist plant would cause “added pollution and a higher risk of cancer.”

Nevertheless, DuPont did consolidate its neoprene operation at the Louisiana plant, where it made the chemical until November 2015. Then, six weeks before the EPA published the National Air Toxics Assessment — which combined emissions data with the health information in the IRIS report to calculate that the risk of cancer from air pollution near the plant was hundreds of times higher than in other parts of the country — DuPont announced the sale of the neoprene division of the plant to a Japanese company called Denka Performance Elastomers. Under new ownership, the production and emissions continued.

Although DuPont sold the division, it could still potentially be liable for the 46 years in which it produced neoprene at the plant. And at least as far back as 2009, it had enlisted a science-for-hire consulting company, now known as Ramboll Environ, to represent its interests on chloroprene. Ramboll Environ, which has also represented Phillip Morris, met with the EPA in August 2016 to challenge the agency’s finding that chloroprene is a likely carcinogen.

Although the EPA did not change its classification of the chemical, DuPont continues to maintain that its plant posed no risk to the community in St. John the Baptist. In response to a list of questions regarding the plant and the company’s knowledge of the dangers of chloroprene, DuPont provided the following statement:

While DuPont operated the Pontchartrain site, we protected our workers from chloroprene exposure applying standards that were up to 125 times more stringent than U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards. DuPont also took great care to protect the health and safety of community-area residents operating under an air permit issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), which established chloroprene emission limits and met the Louisiana Toxic Air Pollutant Ambient Air Standard for chloroprene. We believe there was no community risk associated with chloroprene.

In response to a list of questions about its awareness of the risks associated with chloroprene, Denka Performance Elastomers consistently challenged the EPA’s assessment. “EPA’s 2010 Toxicity Review of Chloroprene characterizes chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen. The epidemiological studies do not support that conclusion, and St. John the Baptist Parish, where the DPE facility is located, has one of the lower cancer incidence rates in Louisiana,” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement, adding: “The epidemiological data does not demonstrate a credible link between human exposure to chloroprene and the incidence of cancers in chloroprene workers, who are exposed to much higher concentrations of chloroprene than members of the community.”

Denka also stated that it was not aware of the forthcoming EPA air toxics assessment until several days after it acquired the neoprene division of the plant on November 1, 2015.

Denka emphasized that its operations are in compliance with its air permits, which is true. When the company purchased the facility in 2015, it came with a permit that allows Denka to emit 403,580 pounds of chloroprene per year, which is more than 100,00 pounds above what it actually emits. But the permit was first issued in 1994, well before the EPA recognized the chemical as a likely human carcinogen.

The EPA generally strives to keep the risk of cancer from air pollution to less than one for every million people. But a May 2016 memo about chloroprene from Kelly Rimer of the agency’s Air Toxics Assessment Group acknowledged that such a low rate isn’t always obtainable and offered instead as the “upper limit of acceptability” a risk of 100 in a million. To stay below that higher level, chloroprene emissions would have to be kept to no more than .2 micrograms per cubic meter.

While Denka indicated it would try to reduce its chloroprene emissions by 85 percent, the company has not committed to meeting any particular level.

Though the numbers from IRIS are officially “risk estimates” and not enforceable limits, the EPA can use them to create binding rules and regulations. But that process, which takes years under the best of circumstances, is very unlikely to move forward while Trump is in office.

States can also use the IRIS numbers to set their own rules. But that seems unlikely in Louisiana. Chuck Carr Brown, the head of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, told me that the .2 micrograms level is “just a guidance.” Instead of aiming to keep emissions below the recommended level, Brown said he is working with Denka to improve leak detection and repair and install various technologies that, he said, should reduce the level of chloroprene emissions by the end of 2017.

Although the EPA document that set the level indicates that its confidence in its calculations is “medium/high,” Brown, a former industry consultant, also said that “nobody is standing behind that number” and that “there are folks that are challenging IRIS.” When I asked which folks Brown was referring to, he didn’t respond. At a December meeting with residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, Brown suggested there was no cause for “fearmongering.”

Brown pointed to the state’s cancer registry, which he told me “doesn’t show any elevated levels of cancer at all in any group of people.” It is true that the Louisiana Tumor Registry fails to show an elevated rate of all cancers in the parish as a whole, compared to the rest of the state, which has the fourth highest rate of cancer deaths in the country (only Mississippi, Kentucky, and West Virginia have higher rates). But it’s impossible to tell from that data whether there is any increase in liver cancer, which is the type of cancer most clearly linked to chloroprene. The tumor registry doesn’t report cancers at all if there are fewer than 16 cases or deaths, according to Lauren S. Maniscalco, the registry’s liaison. The registry withholds data for smaller areas to protect the confidentiality of patients, Maniscalco said.

Reporting data at the parish or county level, however, instead of the zip code or census tract, makes it virtually impossible to see hotspots within the county. Because liver cancer is rare — there are only 7.6 cases for every 100,000 people in the U.S. — you would expect to find about three cancers in the entire parish. According to county level data from the CDC and National Cancer Institute, St. John the Baptist Parish has three or fewer cases of liver cancer. But even one case in the small census tract next to the factory, which has just 1,966 residents, would represent a rate more than six times what’s expected.

“Parish-level data is not going to tell you anything about locale-based health problems,” said Barbara Allen, a sociologist who has studied the Louisiana Tumor Registry, which has been sued by at least one researcher for its refusal to share data. The registry was also paid by the Louisiana Chemical Association to produce a study of links between industry and cancer in 1989. “By collecting the data and only releasing it at the parish level, the tumor registry and other interested parties know that there is no way to show a correlation between living near industry and disease,” Allen said.

While the hard cancer statistics are either inconclusive or disputed, no one has even attempted to tally the autoimmune diseases or other problems that have been reported both in the scientific literature on chloroprene and in the neighborhood. But thanks to spherical metal air monitors that have been hanging at six points near the neoprene factory since May, the level of the chemical in the air is becoming increasingly clear.

When we spoke, Brown told me that the improvements at the plant had already brought about a significant reduction in emissions. “I won’t take a victory lap too soon, but the numbers are looking good,” Brown said. But monitoring data on the EPA website show that there is still plenty of chloroprene in the air by the plant.

In November, a monitor by the intersection of Acorn Street and Highway 44, which runs alongside the river, was 765 times higher than the level the EPA calculated would have a 100-in-a-million cancer risk from air pollution. By the clinic, where many residents go for treatment, the level was more than 330 times higher. And on a Saturday in January, the level of the likely carcinogen in the air by the Fifth Ward Elementary School was 370 times above what the EPA described as the upper limit of acceptability. That is more than 37,000 times higher than the level of chloroprene the EPA calculated would bring the risk of cancer down to one in a million.

Whether the pollution is hundreds or thousands of times what it should be, the knowledge that children are being exposed to elevated levels of a likely carcinogen would be enough to spark widespread outrage and immediate action in many places around the United States. But not in this part of Louisiana.

In October, Robert Taylor, along with his neighbors living near the plant, founded a group called Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist. Taylor, a retired general contractor and bass player, remembers drinking from “colored” water fountains and playing in bars where he had to walk through a separate entrance because “that’s where we made our living.” After the factory a few blocks away began making neoprene, he watched stoically as his nature-loving son mourned the plants and insects that seemed to retreat from the neighborhood. Even when the Taylors “lost outdoor air,” because the odors made it too unpleasant to be outside, he was resolute. “It was just subtle and gradual,” Taylor said, “like they were turning up the temperature a few degrees at a time.”

But the recent news that the chemical his family has been inhaling for so many years might have contributed to their illnesses has changed something in Taylor. “It’s too much,” he told me, while his wife rested on the couch next to us. In recent weeks, Taylor has been organizing meetings with Wilma Subra, the technical consultant who has worked with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, discussing how they might be able to get the chemical out of their air.

But the local parish council and the school board have yet to address the issue. And in an area where churches guide much of public life, few religious leaders have spoken openly about the pollution problem. Steve Perrilloux, who leads the congregation at the Riverlands Christian Center in the parish and grew up two blocks from the plant, invited 15 pastors to a meeting in January to discuss supporting the community there, but since the meeting, only one has stepped forward to help.

“They’re looking at dollars and cents and not recognizing that they have to stand for righteousness rather than an economic benefit,” Perrilloux said of the other pastors. “Sometimes people don’t want to get on the wrong side of the political leaders.”

Many people fear being seen as a threat to the chemical industry, which is one of the biggest local employers. Two hundred and fifty people work at the plant, though few members of the African-American community living right next door have managed to get any of the coveted jobs there. The two I heard of, Bryant Perrilloux and Nathan Duhe, also happened to die premature deaths from cancer. Duhe, who was an operator at the plant for more than two decades, died in his early 60s. And Perrilloux, a distant cousin of the pastor who began doing janitorial work at the plant after school when he was 17, died of stomach cancer when he was just 18.

Still, many local residents defend the plant. Pastor Perrilloux has already heard from people who see him as attacking a valued source of local income. “One even raised his voice and he even cursed at me,” he said.

I got a taste of how local authorities treat potential threats to industry when I took a walk along the Mississippi River on a Sunday morning while reporting this story. Setting out on a public walkway not far from the neoprene plant, I came to a mammoth industrial facility that runs along both sides of the road parallel to the river. Minutes after I used my phone to snap a photo of the tangled pipes that snaked above my head, a security vehicle and two sheriff’s cars arrived. A uniformed officer emerged from one and told me he would report me “to Homeland Security.” After I gave the officers my name and drove away, one of the cars followed me and pulled me over with sirens blaring, accusing me of using the wrong blinker and calling for backup.

Others who challenge the industry face worse hostility. In the more than two decades that she’s been providing technical assistance to residents of polluted areas in the South, Wilma Subra has had her office broken into more than 20 times. Someone even shot at the office once. Subra, who also helped the community living near the neoprene plant in Rubbertown, now does her work behind bulletproof glass.

The people living alongside the plant in St. John the Baptist Parish will be relying on Subra and one other person who is protected from the vagaries of the local economy as they move forward. John Cummings, a dapper 80-year-old trial lawyer who owns 6,000 acres in the parish, recently brought together a number of attorneys to “address the situation” near the plant, as he told me when we spoke amid the live oak trees on the Whitney Plantation. Cummings, who transformed the old sugar plantation into the state’s only museum of slavery and is clearly outraged by the pollution, described himself as “a bad guy to ignore.”

It’s easy to see how a person who has made and spent many millions in the area would expect people to listen to him. Robert Taylor and the others living near the neoprene plant have no such expectations. They’re used to being ignored.

For years, their fears about the plant hung over the neighborhood like the toxic gas. But the residents’ collective sense that they were being harmed wasn’t enough to get a response. It took the work of several divisions of the EPA over the course of many years to prove that people were in danger. And that was under administrations that at least nominally supported the agency’s mission.

Under the best of circumstances, the agency designed to protect public health can give communities like the one in St. John the Baptist a shot at vanquishing the pollutants that affect their health. Without it, they might not even have that.

Sharon Lerner covers health and the environment for The Intercept. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and The Washington Post, among other publications, and has received awards from The Society for Environmental Journalists, The American Public Health Association, the Women and Politics Institute, and The Newswoman’s Club of New York. Her series, The Teflon Toxin, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Follow her on Twitter @fastlerner.

 

May 8, 2017