DOJ sues Cancer Alley company; Biden admin considers the fate of the Willow drilling project

Cancer Alley

The Department of Justice sued the country’s sole neoprene plant in Louisiana over violations of the Clean Air Act, asking the courts to force the company to reduce its cancer-causing emissions.

Denka, a chemical corporation headquartered in Japan, leases a neoprene manufacturing site in St. John the Baptist Parish (southeast Louisiana) from American company DuPont. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber used in gaskets, tubing, seals, hoses, wetsuits, and orthopedic braces. The production of neoprene involves a liquid raw material called chloroprene, which the EPA considers a hazardous air pollutant that causes cancer:

Chloroprene is hazardous, in part, because it is a likely human carcinogen. Breathing chloroprene increases the risk of developing cancers, such as lung and liver cancer, over the course of a lifetime. Chloroprene acts via a mutagenic “mode of action,” meaning that when a person breathes chloroprene, it causes mutations in the body’s cells. These mutations increase the likelihood that a person who breathes chloroprene will develop certain cancers over the course of their lifetime.

Infants and children younger than 16 are likely to be especially susceptible to chloroprene’s cancer-causing effects. Chloroprene exposure during a person’s early years is therefore particularly significant to their lifetime risk of developing cancer.

According to the EPA, concentrations of chloroprene over 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter (0.2 µg/m3) increases a person’s risk of developing cancer above the 1-in-10,000 “acceptable” threshold. Air monitors placed around the community documented chloroprene concentrations averaging between 0.41 and 2.9 µg/m3 since April 2018—meaning, even the lowest concentration level, found 2.5 miles away from the plant, is more than four times greater than the 0.2 µg/m3 maximum allowable concentration.

Approximately 17,000 people live within this 2.5 mile radius of Denka’s facility; 3,000-4,000 are under the age of 18, with about 1,000 under the age of 5. These children are at an increased risk of cancer due to the chloroprene pollution:

Infants and children are more susceptible than adults to the cancer risks posed by mutagens like chloroprene. This is because more rapid cell division during early life results in less time for the body to repair DNA mutations before the damaged cells replicate. The more rapid replication of mutated cells increases the risk of developing cancer. Infants and children are also more susceptible to chloroprene’s cancer-causing risks because, for physiological reasons, they will likely have higher and more persistent blood concentrations of chloroprene or its metabolites than adults exposed to the same air concentrations of chloroprene.

St. John the Baptist parish is part of an 85-mile stretch of Louisiana called Cancer Alley due to the high number of chemical plants emitting harmful pollution. Nearly 60% of the population of St. John the Baptist is African American—a pattern seen throughout Cancer Alley.

The EPA’s letter noted that 93% of the residents within a mile of the Denka plant are Black, and the Formosa plant is slated for a census tract where 90% of the population is Black, compared to 50% in the overall parish. These demographic patterns can be traced back to the Reconstruction era, the letter said, as freed Black families were able to purchase small parcels of land near plantations. Over time, the plantations were replaced by large petrochemical facilities, while the descendants of those families continued to live in rural, unincorporated towns that became “fence line” communities.


The EPA’s 0.2 µg/m3 chloroprene threshold was calculated using the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, which employs scientific disciplines like toxicology and epidemiology to assess and characterize the risks to human health posed by specific environmental hazards. The process of analyzing specific chemicals can take a long time, leading to criticism of the program’s lengthy turnaround time and lack of transparency while an analysis is underway.

Under the Obama administration, there was a push to reform the IRIS program after the Government Accountability Office concluded in 2008 that, “the IRIS database is at serious risk of becoming obsolete because EPA has not been able to routinely complete timely, credible assessments or decrease its backlog of 70 ongoing assessments.” In 2014, Congress requested that the program make a handful of changes to the way it analyzes chemicals, and in 2017 the GAO again questioned IRIS’s efficiency.

Some Republicans have outright sought to kill the IRIS program. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), a far right extremist, introduced legislation in 2018 to eliminate IRIS that was cosponsored by 16 other Republicans. Critically, congressional efforts to kill IRIS align with the chemical industry’s lobbying to do the same: Denka has twice petitioned the EPA to ignore IRIS’s chloroprene threshold in St. John the Baptist parish.

Biggs and others point to the chloroprene plant in Louisiana as an example of IRIS being used to unjustly regulate the chemical industry. Because the plant is already complying with state pollution permits, they argue, company shouldn’t be forced to reduce chloroprene emissions further.

Willow Project

The Biden administration took another step towards approving ConocoPhillips’ massive $8 billion drilling project in the Alaskan wilderness, setting up a final decision that could come this week.

The Willow project would involve roughly 220 wells that would produce about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years. The oil extracted from the site, located in the National Petroleum Reserve, the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States, is estimated to generate 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

The decision to greenlight the Willow project has angered environmentalists, who point to Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to end new oil and gas drilling on public lands and the damaging effects of climate change that aren’t slowing down:

“This would be the largest single oil drilling project proposed anywhere in the U.S., and it is drastically out of step with the Biden administration’s goals to slash climate pollution and transition to clean energy. Biden will be remembered for what he did to tackle the climate crisis, and as things stand today, it’s not too late for him to step up and pull the plug on this carbon bomb.”

The term “carbon bomb” is important. Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the U.S., thawing the frozen Arctic tundra around drilling rigs, making the ground unstable, and causing dangerous leaks. ConocoPhillips intends to address the problem by installing chillers to keep the tundra frozen and stable.

“Where necessary we use cooling devices (thermosyphons) that can chill the ground enough in the winter to help it remain frozen through the summer,” ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said.

The irony cannot be missed—the company will freeze the ground in order to extract oil that will create greenhouse gasses that further melt the ground.

Alaskan Native American groups are split on the project. Those who live closest and depend on the migration of caribou for survival, like those in the village of Nuiqsut, oppose development in the area. “The environmental racism and injustice of oil development on the North Slope must stop,” Nuiqsut residents wrote in a letter to the Biden administration. “The government also has an obligation to protect us from the harms of the oil industry and must stop expecting us to sacrifice our own lives ‘in the national interest.’ Fenceline communities’ have been asked to do so for too long, and environmental justice requires a new approach.”

Other tribes, many not as proximally located to the drilling sites, support the Willow project, at least in part due to the revenue they’ll receive to fund services like education.

“Willow presents an opportunity to continue that investment in the communities,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the advocacy group Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told CNN. “Without that money and revenue stream, we’re reliant on the state and the feds.”

ConocoPhillips is also supported by Alaska’s congressional delegation and energy lobbying groups. Both Rep. Mary Peltola (D) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) are pressing the administration to approve the Willow project:

“The Willow Project has been one of my top priorities because it is deeply important to our future as a state,” said Representative Peltola. “In the short term, this project will provide thousands of good-paying union jobs and help jump-start Alaska’s economy. In the long term, the revenues from Willow will pay for essential state services like public safety and investments in our education system.”

“The Willow Project is critical to Alaska’s economy, throughput in the quarter-full Trans Alaska Pipeline System, domestic energy security & making energy more affordable,” Sen. Murkowski said on Twitter. “It is no wonder the project has such broad support from Alaskans.”

The Biden administration is expected to release its final decision on the Willow project this month.