Earth Day

The Dangerous Environmental Outlook for Black Communities

[Op-Ed] The way the EPA is addressing the problems of one Louisiana town under the Trump administration could foreshadow more of the same in similar places

by Keith Rushing, April 21, 2017

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Earth Day

Denka/DuPont Plant. YouTube Screengrab

If you want to understand what the Trump era will mean for Black communities that are overburdened with pollution, the people of St. John the Baptist Parish, La., can tell you.

Just last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told them that their community had the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the nation. The level of risk was 777 per million, more than 800 times the national average. It’s no surprise that the area is commonly referred to as “Cancer Alley.”

The EPA’s notification simply seemed to confirm what residents of this mostly Black community had believed for a long time — that a synthetic rubber factory operating since 1969 on a former sugar plantation one-half hour west of New Orleans was making them sick. The rubber plant, built by Dupont but now owned by Denka Performance Elastomers, releases chloroprene, a gas that is a likely carcinogen. It’s one of 28 chemicals the factory uses to make the synthetic rubber called neoprene.

Studies have linked chloroprene to cancers of the liver, lung and kidneys thyroid and leukemia. But that’s not all. Chloroprene has been linked to disorders of the immune system, heart palpitations, anemia, stomach problems,  rashes and reproductive problems.

Many in this community can trace their roots to slavery and nearby plantations. Some reside in homes that once served as slave quarters. The area is poverty stricken; The median per capita income in the parish in 2010 was $15,445 according to the U.S. Census.

Everyone in this community seems to know someone with cancer and some have other horrible illnesses. One 48-year-old woman, Raven Taylor, has a rare autoimmune disorder called gastroparesis, which has left her bedridden and unable to digest food. Some have described suffering from rashes, diarrhea, itchy eyes and heart palpitations, all of which are associated with this toxic gas.

It took years after conclusive scientific research had already shown chloroprene to cause cancer for the EPA to notify the people of St. John the Baptist of their cancer risk. In 1999, definitive links to cancer emerged when the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that chloroprene was a likely carcinogen. But the EPA didn’t redesignate it as a chemical that likely causes cancer until 2010. The EPA finally released a map of air toxics data showing the extreme risk of cancer in this community in December 2015, but it wasn’t until last May that the EPA notified people living in the Parish.

The EPA is the only federal industry tasked with measuring and protecting the public from environmental pollutants like chloroprene, and it is the only one that made these findings known to the community. The amount of time it took for the EPA to issues findings and communicate about the health risks this community faces from chloroprene is not acceptable.

Now, the people of St. John the Baptist Parish are living under a Trump administration that wants to completely gut the EPA. Trump, in his recent budget blueprint, proposed a 31 percent cut to the agency for the next fiscal year and has said he wants to reduce the agency tasked with protecting our health to “tidbits.”

Trump’s plans call for killing the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), the agency that determined chloroprene was a likely carcinogen and the only office which evaluates the toxicity of chemicals. IRIS, alone, was the department that enabled the people of St. John the Baptist to know that they faced the highest cancer risk in the nation from air pollution.

Unfortunately EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, selected by Trump, is no friend to this community or any of us, as he spent much of his career as the former attorney general of Oklahoma suing the EPA hoping to limit federal protections from pollution (Unsurprisingly, he has also received substantial campaign contributions from polluters.).

These issues matter greatly to communities of color because we are much more likely to live near toxic pollution. In fact, more than 72 percent of African-Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards. And nearly 70 percent of Latino and Asian American children live in areas with elevated levels of ozone, a greenhouse gas produced by cars, tracks and factories that is linked to asthma and other lung illnesses.

People of color stand the most to lose when laws and federal protections are weakened and gutted. But Trump’s budget proposal is still just that, a proposal. We can push Congress, which is currently preparing the budget for 2018, to reverse course on any plans to cut EPA spending and fund the agency at adequate levels to protect the people of St. John the Baptist Parish and all of us who live with unsafe levels of pollution.


Keith Rushing is Advocacy Lead for Earthjustice.

 
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