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A new regenerative thermal oxidizer (RTO) sits at the Denka Performance Elastomer plant in Laplace, La., Monday, April 9, 2018. The RTO destroys chloroprene, a chemical the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says increases risk of cancer over a lifetime.

Thirteen St. John the Baptist Parish plaintiffs have filed an amended lawsuit against a LaPlace chemical plant, claiming the plant has caused them health problems ranging from shortness of breath to mucus membrane irritation.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman had demanded such specifics as he considers a motion to dismiss the suit.

The suit asks Feldman to order that the plant, which is operated by the company Denka Performance Elastomer, reduce or halt its operations until its emissions of a chemical compound called chloroprene drop below a suggested threshold.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls chloroprene a “likely carcinogen.” 

Federal judge poised to toss lawsuit by St. John residents against chemical company Denka

The chemical is used to make the synthetic rubber neoprene, which is then used to make products like wet suits and medical braces.

But Denka says the level of 0.2 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter of air that the EPA calls the upper limit for safe exposure is too low and is unrealistic to reach.

Its attorneys have called for the lawsuit’s dismissal, arguing there is no evidence that the Denka plant has caused health problems for nearby residents.

Feldman agreed in a July 26 ruling, calling the suit filed by the group Concerned Citizens of St. John “wholly defective” in its claim that the plant is a nuisance.

In his ruling, Feldman threw out any claim that DuPont, the company that started producing chloroprene at the plant in 1969 and sold it to Denka in 2015, was at fault for alleged health problems.

He also said the suit against Denka in its original form would likely be dismissed, but he gave an opportunity for the plaintiffs to file an amended motion by Friday.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs filed that amended suit Thursday, outlining numerous health problems that each plaintiff claims the plant has caused them.

There has been disagreement between the EPA and state regulators over how harmful chloroprene is, with the EPA saying St. John Parish had the highest risk of cancer from airborne pollutants anywhere in the country in 2015. The state says the long-term effects of chloroprene exposure are unknown.

But Larry Sorapuru, a parish councilman and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the results are obvious in health problems across the community.

In the amended lawsuit, Sorapuru says his own issues include headaches, respiratory difficulties, mucous membrane irritation and insomnia.

“He enjoys going on walks and bicycle rides but is unable to do so when in the vicinity of his residence because his physical symptoms intensify when he goes outside. He dreads going outside,” the amended lawsuit states. “The symptoms hamper his ability to maintain an active lifestyle as a senior citizen. As a result, he suffers depression and anxiety for his family’s future.”

Denka’s attorneys argue there is no proof that emissions from the plant cause any health problems. However, the company has tried to reduce its chloroprene emissions. Denka said it has spent more than $30 million in an effort to reduce the emissions by 85 percent, though that may not drop them below the 0.2 percent limit set by the EPA.

The effort has led to a steady decline in airborne chloroprene around the plant over the last two years, according to the state Department of Health.

Still, Sorapuru said in an interview that the company's efforts don’t go far enough and that the EPA guidelines should be the deciding factor in the case.

“I think the judge has no sympathy for the people of St. John Parish,” he added.

Attorney Hugh Lambert, who represents the plaintiffs, said Feldman’s dismissal of the suit against DuPont — and, if it happens, against Denka — will be appealed.

Feldman ruled in March that the plaintiffs' case would not be granted class-action status, as they wanted; he said they had missed the deadline to do that.

A spokesman for Denka said the company would not comment on pending litigation.

Follow Nick Reimann on Twitter, @nicksreimann.