Erin Brockovich & Cancer Alley—Where is the EPA?

Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) takes a water sample in Hinkley, CA

In 2001, Julia Roberts received an Oscar for playing savvy single mom and law clerk Erin Brockovich who was instrumental in building a case against a large utility contaminating the local water of a small town. The Oskar-winning movie of the same name put the Mohave Desert town of Hinkley, California, on the map and fully established Pacific Gas and Electric as the nefarious scheming villain.

In the 1950s and ’60s, PG&E dumped 1,400 million litres of chromium-6-tainted wastewater into unlined wastewater ponds near the town. Brockovich began an investigation into the health impacts of the contamination in 1993, which resulted in Hinkley residents winning a massive direct-action arbitration against Pacific Gas and Electric for knowingly contaminating the local water with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium (chromium-6).

Hexavalent chromium causes lung and nasal cancer in those who ingest it over a long time and has turned up in higher-than-recommended levels in the tap water supplying two-thirds of all Americans.  Even in small amounts, chromium-6 can cause skin burns, pneumonia, complications during childbirth and stomach cancer. “While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies chromium-6 as a known carcinogen, there is no federal standard on the maximum amount of chromium-6,” reports EWG, a nonprofit research organization. “In 1991, the EPA set a regulation for total chromium, but that includes chromium-3, which is a naturally occurring chemical and essential human nutrient. California’s drinking water standard for chromium-6 took effect on July 1, 2014. It established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for chromium-6 in drinking water and remains the only drinking water standard for chromium-6 in the nation.”

Pacific Gas and Electric at Hinkley

In the 1950s and 1960s, PG&E used this known carcinogen to suppress rust formation at the Hinkley gas compressor station; they dumped some 1,400 million litres of chromium-6-tainted wastewater and irresponsibly failed to line the waste ponds, allowing chromium-6 to seep into the groundwater. PG&E went on to mislead the community by suggesting that the less toxic chromium-3 was in the groundwater with no adverse effects.

The corporate irresponsibility and criminal deception enacted by Pacific Gas & Electric is by no means an isolated occurence. Enter Denka Performance Elastomeer, the new villain on the block…

Cows graze near the Denka plant emitting known carcinogens at St. John Parish, Louisiana

Cancer Alley

In St. James Parish, Louisiana, an hour’s drive from New Orleans, community members have for decades been battling the environmental harms of Big Plastic and Big Oil. St. James Parish lies in an area called “Cancer Alley” for increased health risks associated with living near 150 petrochemical refineries, plastic manufacturing complexes, and other chemical facilities. Cancer Alley spans some 85 miles along both banks of the lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in the River Parishes of Louisiana. It accounts for 25% of the petrochemical production in the United States.

Marathon Petroleum, St. John Parish, Louisiana

“According to EPA air pollution data, people living in Cancer Alley are exposed to some of the highest levels of toxic air pollution in the U.S. produced by industrial facilities placed predominantly in African-American neighbourhoods,” writes Erica Cirino in Yes! Magazine. Risks of getting cancer in Cancer Alley are astronomically higher than the average, running up to 2,000 in a million in the St. John the Baptist Parish (over an American average of 6-25/million). “That’s largely due to the presence of a single neoprene factory, Denka Performance Elastomeer, which emits carcinogenic chloroprene gas, among other chemicals,” writes Cirino.

The area immediately adjacent to the Denka neoprene plant in St. John the Baptist Parish has been recognized by the EPA as having the likelihood of getting cancer from air pollution over 700 times the national average.

In a 2021 article in the Louisiana Illuminator entitled “Air Quality Regulators in ‘Cancer Alley’ Have Fallen Dangerously Behind,” Mark Schleifstein writes that “Louisiana has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile of any state.” The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office determined that the “Department of Environmental Quality needs to do a better job of identifying industrial polluters that don’t properly report emission violations, and it should enforce those violations more aggressively.”

Activist organization RISE St. James is currently focusing efforts to block yet another plastic factory called Sunshine Project (a branch of Taiwanese industrial conglomerate Formosa Plastic Group) in their already environmentally beleaguered community. In March 2021, the United Nations human rights experts condemned the project, and called on the U.S. government “to deliver environmental justice in communities all across America, starting with St. James Parish.”

This brings me back to the gutted, feckless, and seemingly useless EPA. Why does the U.S. federal Environmental Protection Agency, a regulatory agency mandated to protect the environment by its very name, not take industry to task on pollution for which the agency has unequivocal evidence? “There should be no carcinogen in water,” Dr. Lynn Goldman, former EPA assistant administrator of toxic substances under President Bill Clinton, told the PBS NewsHour about another carcinogenic chemical (chromium-6) found in drinking water. “The overall problem here is, what does it take for EPA to speed up its standard-setting process?”

Apparently it’s not that simple. It just takes time—even when you know what you have to do…

Time to Get It Right…

in 2010, the EPA announced that the long-term exposure limit for breathing chloroprene was 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, and classified chloroprene as a “likely human carcinogen.” Shortly after, federal and state authorities started monitoring the air in the neighborhoods around the Louisiana plant, and found radically elevated levels of chloroprene.

In 2018, the company claimed that it had installed technology that would reduce chloroprene emissions by 85 percent. Later that year, public air monitors showed that chloroprene levels in the surrounding area were still trending upward — multiple air monitors showed concentrations more than 150 times higher than EPA’s IRIS value. The company twice petitioned the EPA to change the safety threshold, arguing that the IRIS analysis was faulty. The EPA declined both requests. Unfortunately, Denka’s request for correction and its lobby to change the EPA’s science on chloroprene stalled action and allowed the company to continue emitting the chemical at levels the EPA has shown to be dangerous. Over ten years after EPA’s 2010 determination, Denka continues to emit dangerous levels of this carcinogenic chemical.

The Denka Performance Elastomer factory in LaPlace, La., emits the chemical chloroprene. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the chemical as a likely human carcinogen.

It Sure Takes Time…

The international Agency for Research on Cancer classified chloroprene as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 1999. Six years later, a National Toxicology Program found the chemical was “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” EPA’s 2010 IRIS assessment demonstrated higher rates of lung cancer, liver cancer, and leukemia in people. Only in 2015, when the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment used the threshold IRIS set to estimate local cancer risk, did the agency qualify the impact of chloroprene exposure in St. John. The report put the risk of cancer from air pollution in one census tract near the plant at 777 per 1 million people—by far the highest in the country. In 2018, the NATA report estimated the risk at 1,500 in a million.

People at Risk for Cancer/million in Cancer Alley, EPA National Air Toxics Assessment

When Conflict of Interest Gets In The Way…

In a March 17, 2022 article in The Intercept, Sharon Lerner exposed corporate deception and revealed sources of conflict of interest through unethical ‘science.’ For instance, Denka hired scientists who painted a rosier picture of chloroprene, which is emitted during the production of the synthetic rubber neoprene. Denka had commissioned science-for-hire firm Ramboll to provide an alternative model that claimed to bring the chloroprene emissions two orders of magnitude below the EPA emission threshold. More fake science by a scientist on their payroll was published in a scientific journal on health of workers at the plant.

Emissions on the Rise…

While Denka used industry-funded science to push back against the EPA’s 2010 assessment, its St. John plant continued to emit the chemical at levels well above the limit EPA set. Recent data collected by air monitors installed near the Denka plant show that, in January 2022, levels of chloroprene were higher than at any other point over the last two years.

According to Nola.com, the Biden administration was the first to pay any significant attention to the plight of St. John. In a recent speech to unveil a series of executive orders targeting climate change, President Biden mentioned ‘Cancer Alley.’ EPA Administrator Michael Regen also visited St. John and the EPA has committed to do more monitoring at the Denka plant.

But, Robert Taylor, St. John community leader, asks the more pressing and relevant question:

“Where’s the enforcement? We have higher pollution than we did two years ago.”

When will EPA enforce its regulations? Where is our Erin Brockovich?…

Discarded oil barrels at ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge (1972 photo by John Messina)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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