As controversy continues to swirl around a LaPlace chemical plant that has been cited for emitting high levels of chloroprene into the air, 13 St. John the Baptist Parish residents have filed a lawsuit against the facility's current and previous owners in an effort to reduce or stop production of what the Environmental Protection Agency considers a "likely carcinogen."
The suit, filed in 40th Judicial District Court against Denka Performance Elastomer and E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., seeks class-action status and includes one well-known resident as a plaintiff: St. John the Baptist Parish Councilman Larry Sorapuru.
DuPont operated the plant until Denka took it over in November 2015, keeping on almost all of the facility's employees.
The suit, assigned to Judge J. Sterling Snowdy, asks that the class include anyone who has lived, worked or attended school within a defined boundary surrounding the facility from 2011 to the present. The judge will determine if the petition meets the criteria to become a class action.
The plaintiffs are asking that the judge order the plant to stop or reduce production until emissions reach the risk-based standard set by the EPA, said Eberhard Garrison, an attorney for the residents. They are also seeking monetary damages for various issues, including health-related problems and lost property value.
Jorge Lavastida, Denka's plant manager and executive officer, said the company hasn't had time to respond to the lawsuit.
"We have not been served the lawsuit yet," he said late Monday. "We will respond in due course in the litigation."
Officials with DuPont did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Denka has already pledged to reduce airborne emissions of chloroprene by 85 percent by the end of this year, and it is in the middle of a $17.5 million project to deal with problems in destroying chloroprene at the plant before it is released into the air.
In 2010, the EPA said chloroprene exposure above 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air puts people at increased risk of getting cancer.
Data collected from six monitoring sites near the plant showed that in May residents were exposed to an average of between 12 and 58 times the amount the EPA says is the “upper limit of acceptability.”
Spikes in emissions during the last year have reached much higher — up to 765 times the risk-based standard — according to data collected by the plant and the EPA.
"It seems to be an extreme scenario to me," Garrison said of the data. "This is an EPA risk-based standard based on a collection of animal studies and human exposure studies. This is not plaintiffs coming in and hand-picking the data."
The suit also asks that some residents be grouped into a "sub-class" for medical monitoring because they have a "justified fear of development of cancer due to chloroprene exposure." Garrison said the judge will decide if the sub-category is allowed.
State regulators say there’s no hard proof showing immediate health risks near the plant and that the long-term effects of chloroprene exposure are still not well understood.
It’s been over a year since researchers with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency starte…
State experts say measuring the risk to St. John residents has been difficult because of several variables, including the proximity of the exposed person to the site, the amount of time chloroprene stays in the body, and the tendency for chloroprene levels in the air to spike and dip over time.
The plant has been under increased scrutiny, however, since December, when the EPA released its National Air Toxic Assessment estimating exposure for 180 air toxins nationwide. The study found that, because of the Denka plant's emissions, residents of St. John the Baptist Parish have the highest potential risk of cancer from airborne pollutants of any community in the country.
Although the plant has been producing chloroprene for decades, those findings created a new urgency to better understand the plant’s operations and prompted a series of actions by the EPA and the state.
After sending investigators into the Denka Performance Elastomer plant for five days last ye…
In April, a preliminary report by federal investigators was released, showing that the LaPlace plant potentially violated the Clean Air Act about 50 times for leaky valves and other issues.
Denka officials have said they believe there are errors in the report and have reserved the right to contest its findings.
The boundary laid out in the petition is marked by Interstate 10 on the north, the St. James Parish line on the west, La. 3127 on the south and the eastern boundary of the community of Killona and the western boundary of the Bonnet Carre Spillway on the east.
That's where "we see a pattern of excessive measurements of chloroprene in the air," Garrison said. "We feel this is a nuisance and trespass interfering with the community's right to live and enjoy their property."