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Lawyers push to relocate students from an elementary school next to chemical plant in St. John

An aerial view of Denka Performance Elastomers, a chemical plant in Reserve, La. located near an elementary school (not pictured) sitting beyond the tree buffer.
File photo
An aerial view of Denka Performance Elastomers, a chemical plant in Reserve, La. located near an elementary school (not pictured) sitting beyond the tree buffer.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is asking a federal judge to require St. John the Baptist Parish School Board to relocate students from an elementary school located right next to a chemical plant.

Fifth Ward Elementary School sits about 500 feet from the Denka Performance Elastomers plant in the small, predominantly Black community of Reserve. Since 2016, local advocates have pushed for the school district to stop sending kids to the school and called on the plant to reduce its pollution.

The move comes three years after the school district first said it would look at relocating the students. The school district has developed various plans but has yet to act. Victor Jones, one of the lawyers leading the petition, argued the continued operation of the school violates the terms of its desegregation order.

A federal judge placed the school district under a desegregation order in 1992 after it failed to integrate the school system. Jones said the school’s pollution exposure means it is unsafe, conflicting with the order.

“Since the board won’t protect the children, and Denka won’t protect the children, our obligation is to get the board to comply with their orders,” said Jones. “And their orders require them to provide healthy and safe facilities for all Black children.”

Denka is the country’s sole manufacturer of neoprene, a synthetic rubber used to make wetsuits, beer koozies and car parts. The Japanese company uses a chemical called chloroprene to make the rubber, but it’s also released into the air.

Those living closest to the plant, including the children attending Fifth Ward, have historically been exposed to levels far above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Chloroprene is a known mutagen, which means it can mutate DNA. It can increase a person’s risk for a wide range of health issues, including cancer, and cause “irreparable damage to organs,” according to Adrienne Katner, a Louisiana State University environmental and occupational health professor.

That means children are especially at risk, Katner said.

“Children are growing very fast. Their cells are dividing. As their cells divide, that DNA Is exposed,” she said. “So this is a critical period. You may not see the effect right away. You may not see it until later on in life.”

About 330 students attend Fifth Ward from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade. According to the Legal Defense Fund’s brief, most of the students don’t live in the communities neighboring Fifth Ward. Instead, Jones said Black and Hispanic students are bussed in to attend school next to the plant, away from their homes, in order to fill empty seats as enrollment has declined.

“That's why I say this Fifth Ward situation is not hyperbole, and it's very dire. It is very severe,” Jones said.

Denka has reduced its emissions dramatically since 2018, but air monitoring shows levels are still too high to be safe. The company has said the EPA regulations are overly protective and based on flawed and limited research, disputing that chloroprene is likely a carcinogen.

The plant and federal regulators are embroiled in several lawsuits over the EPA’s push to cut Denka’s pollution farther, arguing the chloroprene levels present an “imminent and substantial” danger to the nearby community and school.

The EPA recently released a new rule aimed at upgrading plant equipment for companies that emit cancer-causing chemicals like chloroprene and ethylene oxide to cut pollution and cancer risk. Denka has sued the EPA for more time to comply after it was given 90 days to make the changes.

Jones said the legal brief to relocate students is currently in the discovery phase and the attorneys will meet with a judge on Aug. 1 to assess the school board’s progress toward relocation.

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Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.