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A new Regenerative thermal oxidizer (RTO) sits at the Denka plant in Laplace, La., Monday, April 9, 2018. The RTO destroys chloroprene, a chemical proven to cause health issues over a lifetime.

The families of three children and one young adult who died of cancer and other illnesses in St. John the Baptist Parish are among the plaintiffs suing operators of a LaPlace chemical plant, as well as two state agencies, claiming emissions from the plant led to their deaths and that state officials should have acted to curb the danger.

The suit, filed Nov. 14 in state district court in Edgard, lists 20 people — many of them young children — who it says suffered everything from brain cancer to clubfoot because of exposure to chloroprene released from the Pontchartrain Works facility.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls chloroprene a “likely carcinogen," having given it that classification in 2010. 

The chemical plant and its current owner, Denka Performance Elastomer, have been the subject of much criticism and other lawsuits the past few years over chloroprene emissions.

Federal judge allows lawsuit against LaPlace chemical plant to go forward

The new suit makes wrongful-death claims against the plant, but in addition it lists two state departments as defendants: the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health.

The plaintiffs are asking for damages for the four deaths, as well as damages for medical expenses, loss of income and fear of early death.

The LaPlace plant is the only place in the U.S. that produces chloroprene, which is used to make neoprene, a synthetic rubber product. 

Each of the plaintiffs lived within 3.1 miles of the plant for “significant periods of time,” according to the suit, exposing them to “dangerous levels of chloroprene” either in the womb or on their own because of their proximity to the plant.

In 2010, the EPA set a threshold for safe human exposure to chloroprene at no more than 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, when breathed over a lifetime.

In 2015, recording stations were put up in St. John Parish and found that chloroprene levels in the air in some cases were at hundreds of times that amount.

In January, Denka completed a $30 million retrofitting of its plant to reduce emissions. Even so, recordings in the area are usually still well above the recommended level.

Denka representatives have said they believe the threshold set by the EPA is too low and that diagnosis numbers from the Louisiana Tumor Registry show that St. John Parish residents don’t face higher rates of cancer than people in the rest of the state.

Despite Denka's promised chloroprene reduction, data show levels far above federal recommendations

But the lawsuit plaintiffs disagree, claiming that exposure at a level higher than recommended by the EPA harmed their children.

Specifically, the suit claims that chloroprene caused a child born in December 2009 to be diagnosed with sarcoma, a cancer, upon her birth. She died in October 2011.

Another baby, a boy, died in 2012 of hydrocephalus, according to the suit. He was 3 months old.

Another child died in 2013, of leukemia. He was 12.

The other death was that of a 20-year-old man, according to the lawsuit. He died in 2017 of brain cancer.

The suit alleges that the defendants knowingly put public health at risk through negligence, by allowing the LaPlace facility to continue releasing chloroprene into the atmosphere even as evidence suggested it might be dangerous.

Although the EPA started officially calling the chemical a likely carcinogen in 2010, tests done by DuPont — which then owned the plant — had showed potential risks for decades, the plaintiffs allege.

In 1999, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — the cancer wing of the World Health Organization — called chloroprene “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” and in 2005, the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens called it “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The lawsuit argues that Denka and DuPont, which opened the plant in 1969 and owned it until Denka bought it in 2015, had information and test results showing that chloroprene was dangerous to humans.

That included a 1969 study DuPont conducted on rats, which the suit says resulted in three rats dying after chloroprene exposure and all the survivors of the project developing head tremors.

The lawsuit also alleges that the Department of Health and LDEQ were complicit in harming the public, since LDEQ issued permits allowing the plant to operate and the Department of Health didn’t share the dangers of chloroprene with the public.

“LDEQ and LDH conspired with Denka and its officials to defraud the public about the dangers of chloroprene emissions,” the suit states.

Along with the two state departments and the chemical companies, other defendants include Jorge Lavastida, the current plant manager, and three former plant managers when DuPont owned the facility: Ivan Caldwell, Walter Glenn and David Pigeon.

Other defendants named are Patrick Walsh, Denka’s safety, health and environmental manager, and Doris Grego, who performed a similar role when DuPont owned the plant.

A spokesman for Denka said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Lavastida and Walsh are both company employees.

The Department of Health, LDEQ and DuPont also stated they would not comment on pending litigation, though a spokesman for DuPont said, “We will vigorously defend our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship.”

A social media page for Caldwell says he’s now the plant manager at a chemical plant in Plaquemine owned by the SNF Holding Co. A page for Grego shows she is retired. Neither could be reached for comment.

It wasn’t immediately clear where Pigeon or Glenn work now, and they also couldn’t be reached. A spokesman for DuPont didn’t say whether they still work for the company.

This latest suit — filed in November — adds to a growing list of lawsuits over the issue of chloroprene.

Parent sues St. John School Board, demanding it relocate students away from chemical plant

Among those is a federal suit by 13 plaintiffs from the group Concerned Citizens of St. John, which seeks an injunction to force the plant to stop or significantly lower production until levels of chloroprene in the air fall below the 0.2 threshold. A motion by Denka to dismiss the suit was recently denied by a federal judge.

Four other suits against Denka are also pending in 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard. Those seek $50,000 for each of the plaintiffs because of their fear of cancer, which the plaintiffs argue is a justified concern that they might develop cancer in the future. There are over 3,000 plaintiffs in those cases.

Another case sitting in the same court is against the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board. That suit demands the board move students from a school near the chemical plant.

Follow Nick Reimann on Twitter, @nicksreimann.