Report: Internal memo shows DuPont knew its LaPlace plant was polluting air 

DuPont sold its facility to avoid cost of reducing pollution

By: - February 20, 2021 12:48 pm

In May 2019, the Coalition Against Death Alley began a 5-day march from St. John the Baptist Parish to Baton Rouge to protest the pollution emitted by plants in what has been alternately called “Cancer Alley” and “Death Alley.” In this photo, a woman holds a sign outside a chemical plant that DuPont sold to Denka in 2015. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the LaPlace plant has regularly emitted chloroprene, a likely carcinogen, at more than 50 times the level deemed safe. (Photo courtesy Ted Quant)

Chemicals manufacturer DuPont decided to sell its LaPlace plant after determining it would cost too much to reduce its emissions of a toxic chemical, according to the Guardian, which based its report on an internal memo from DuPont that was entered as an exhibit in a lawsuit filed in St. John the Baptist Parish.

The memo, the newspaper reports, indicates that the multibillion-dollar company worried in 2011 about the potential cost of offsetting its emissions of chloroprene, a “likely human carcinogen,” and preceded DuPont’s decision in 2015 to sell the LaPlace facility to Japanese chemical company Denka. According to the newspaper and the memo that was made public last week, DuPont codenamed the sale of the plant “Project Elm.”

“They do their research; they do their due diligence, so they’ve known for some time what they’ve been doing,” Lydia Gerard, a St. John resident who’s the lead plaintiff in a suit against DuPont and Denka, said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s like, ‘Let’s get rid of this before we have to spend money on it.’”

Gerard, who lost her husband to cancer in 2018, said in a Thursday phone interview that over the years DuPont never notified residents of the emissions. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the plant continues to release chemical pollutants into the air at excessively high quantities. 

Residents who live near the plant in St. John the Baptist Parish — the heart of America’s “Cancer Alley” — believe the toxic pollution, which has been emitted from the plant for nearly a half century, is to blame for their illnesses and are suing both DuPont and Denka.

Robert Taylor, president of Concerned Citizens of St. John and another plaintiff in the lawsuit against the companies, said by phone Tuesday: “They refused to adhere to the EPA recommended levels.” 

The Illuminator reviewed air monitoring records from as recently as January 2020 that show the plant has regularly emitted chloroprene vapors at more than 50 times the level deemed safe by the EPA. The EPA has been monitoring and collecting air samples from the site since 2016, when it fined DuPont $37,500 for previous Clean Air Act violations from when it owned the LaPlace facility.

The DuPont memo, written by the company’s then president of polymers, Diane Gulyas, was sent to the chief executive with the title “Approval to Conduct an Auction and Negotiate the Sale of Neoprene,” as revealed by the Guardian. 

Chloroprene is the key chemical in the manufacture of neoprene synthetic rubber. The EPA reclassified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen in 2010. That reclassification was reflected in the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) map released by the EPA in 2015, which “showed an elevated risk for cancer in the area around the Denka plant in LaPlace,” according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

DuPont’s memo cited the reclassification of chloroprene as the primary reason to sell the plant and cautioned that new compliance regulations could be put in place in 2012 or 2013, stating: “Measures required to achieve compliance may entail capital expenditures.”

However, Louisiana authorities never compelled DuPont to regulate its emissions at the plant. It was only after the sale to Denka that, with increasing public scrutiny, regulators began enforcing environmental laws at the plant. In 2016, the EPA wrapped up a two-year investigation of the plant’s Clean Air Act violations, and thereafter Denka entered into a 2017 voluntary agreement with the Louisiana DEQ to reduce stack emissions by 85%, according to the DEQ’s website.

Residents were not satisfied with DEQ’s settlement with Denka. An 85% emissions reduction means the plant is still polluting the air with chloroprene at levels well-above (in some cases 10 times higher) than the amount deemed non-hazardous by federal regulators. 

“They want citizens to think they’re taking legitimate action, but they’re not,” Taylor said of Denka and LDEQ. 

DuPont has claimed in court records that it is not liable for the pollution.

“While we do not comment on pending litigation, we will vigorously defend our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” DuPont spokesman Daniel Turner wrote in an email to the Illuminator

For its part, Denka, the new owner, has said it was unaware of the EPA’s air pollutants report that highlighted cancer risks in LaPlace when it purchased the plant from DuPont.

The Guardian has led a sustained reporting project on pollution in St. John Parish

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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