More than a year after the St. John Parish-based Denka Performance Elastomer plant was expected to make an 85 percent cut in its emissions of chloroprene — a government-designated "likely carcinogen" — the chemical company still hadn't met that mandate, state regulatory officials report.

Officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said in a letter last week that the LaPlace plant had 30 more days to come into compliance with a consent order first issued in 2017. They said it could face stricter enforcement, including fines, if it can't further reduce emissions in the near future.

"The 2019 emissions inventory submitted to the department does not demonstrate an 85 percent reduction in chloroprene emissions from the facility," the letter read.

Despite chemical exposure warnings, many St. John residents decide to stay, fight Denka in court

Residents in LaPlace and Reserve who live near the plant have been closely watching the company to see if it would meet deadlines set in a voluntary agreement finalized in early 2017 as controversy over the chemical plant resulted in protests and legal attacks over its chloroprene production.

The company spent most of 2017 working to abide by the order, retrofitting the plant with more than $35 million worth of equipment that officials said would significantly reduce the discharge of toxic chemicals.

On Thursday, Denka officials said they were close to achieving their goal, emitting 37 tons of chloroprene in 2018 — a 70 percent reduction from 2014 — and would have been able to cut emissions further if it hadn't been for a series of events that stalled progress, including issues starting up a key apparatus for burning off chemicals.

Denka spokesman Jim Harris said the company's emissions rate for the second half of 2018 and preliminary numbers for 2019 both show it will meet its reduction goal.

He said Denka "is a responsible operator and will continue to reduce its environmental footprint where possible." 

Reassurances from Denka have done little to assuage community members who for years have been breathing chloroprene. In 2015, an Environmental Protection Agency report said that the chemical may potentially cause cancer in addition to less dangerous conditions, like headaches, dizziness and skin rashes.

"We're just stuck in this fight with this monstrosity," said Robert Taylor, a longtime resident and founder of the activist group Concerned Citizens of St. John. "If it wasn’t so detrimental and so deadly and so causing of human suffering, I would consider it a joke. It's macabre."

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The company's chloroprene production unit can be found near the center of the plant, located along the Mississippi River next to the Fifth Ward Elementary School, a cow pasture and Reserve, a mostly African-American community of about 9,000 residents.

For nearly 50 years, employees of Denka and its predecessor corporate owners have produced chloroprene at the plant in order to create neoprene, a synthetic rubber found in items like medical braces, electric insulation and wetsuits.

The plant existed with little controversy until 2015, when the EPA released an air toxics report indicating that part of St. John Parish had the highest risk of cancer from airborne pollutants of any place in the country. It blamed the Denka plant.

A year later, the company voluntarily entered a consent agreement with the state mandating a drop in chloroprene emissions from about 120 tons a year, the amount released in 2014, to 18 tons, an 85 percent cut. Officials hoped to reach that level by the beginning of 2018.

Key to that reduction was a regenerative thermal oxidizer, a piece of machinery designed to slash emissions through a complicated series of chemical reactions.

The oxidizer, along with other equipment, was supposed to be installed and properly working by the end of 2017. But it wasn't fully operational until March 2018.

In their letter, state environmental officials said they would give the company another month to either collect a year's worth of data, with all equipment working, to prove they could reduce emissions as promised, or submit a new plan for how to reduce chloroprene output to required amounts in the future.

Only if they fail to meet that mandate would the LDEQ consider a compliance order or notice of potential penalty, according to Ted Broyles, an attorney for the agency.

In the meantime, EPA data have been revealing ambient air readings, the actual amount of chloroprene residents breathe, measured in micrograms per cubic meter. Officials have taken those readings about every three days since May 2016.

Over the years, chloroprene levels have dipped and spiked, sometimes recording up to hundreds of times the recommendation set by the EPA of no more than 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Denka has long said that the reduction in tons of chloroprene will also lead to a drop in the ambient air readings, noting that preliminary testing showed the oxidizer destroyed nearly 99 percent of the chloroprene directed to it.

A preliminary analysis done by The New Orleans Advocate after the installation was finished did show a dramatic decrease: a 71.4 percent drop in average emissions from the last half of 2016, before any retrofitting had been done, to the first few months of 2018, after it was completed.

Data from March, the latest available, show one monitoring site nearly reached the EPA's recommended level. Others were above the limit, with at least one 17 times above it.

But residents who insist "only 0.2 will do" say they won't stop fighting Denka until all emissions get down to the EPA's recommended level.

The company has said it won't ever get to that level, which it says is far too low. 

Denka has requested a second correction from the EPA, after the first was denied, and state officials say they won't back the EPA's recommendation or set a new limit until the federal agency responds.

The state agency "would need more information from EPA and the company about the company’s ongoing request for correction," said Greg Langley, an LDEQ spokesman. 

Hugh Lambert, one of several lawyers suing Denka, said that the March letter shows the state agency is becoming "more conscious of their mandate to protect public safety and the environment, despite the false assurances of compliance from Denka."

But Anne Rolfes, the executive director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said the department's handling of Denka's chloroprene output is indicative of a bigger problem of weak enforcement in Louisiana, a state long considered to be industry-friendly.

"This isn’t enforcement. This is pushing paper," Rolfes said. "If there was real enforcement, those children would have been evacuated from that elementary school near the plant, and the plant would have been forced to shut down."

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.