RESERVE, La. (WGNO) — An elementary school located in what’s been colloquially referred to as Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” could soon be shut down following recommendations from the EPA. Now, the interim superintendent of St. John the Baptist Public Schools is speaking out, saying she wasn’t aware of the proposal.
Located in the rural parish community of Reserve, Fifth Ward Elementary rests less than a mile away from the Denka facility, a plant that manufactures a chemical called chloroprene that is used to make synthetic rubber.
In a 56-page letter written earlier this month by the Environmental Protection Agency, federal officials released findings that the Louisiana Department of Health has allowed air pollution to remain high in the community.
Specifically, the EPA says the state let Denka expose nearby residents in the predominantly Black community to high levels of the carcinogen for decades, increasing their chances of developing cancer in their lifetime.
With that letter came the EPA’s recommendation to close the school and relocate its more than 300 students to another facility while the school is monitored. However, interim superintendent Rebecca Johnson says her office never received the notice that the school would close its doors.
“That letter was sent by the EPA, that letter was not addressed to the school system or any of the school board members,” Johnson told WGNO’s Amy Russo. “Therefore at this time, we have not had the time to receive or review the letter. The health and safety of all of our kids and of our community is of the utmost importance.”
Johnson says Denka and the school district have reached an agreement to install EPA air quality control measures at Fifth Ward, but as for closing the school, she says her administration needs to review the report in-depth before any decisions are made.
Meanwhile Denka spokesperson Jim Harris remains insistent that there is no evidence of health risk near the plant, saying:
“There is simply no evidence of increased levels of health impacts near Denka Performance Elastomer’s Neoprene facility in St. John the Baptist Parish. Data compiled by the Louisiana Tumor Registry (LTR) have repeatedly shown for decades there are no widespread elevated rates of cancer in the parish or in the census tracts neighboring the facility compared with state averages. In fact, St. John routinely ranks in line with or below the state’s averages for overall cancers and the types of cancer EPA suggested to be linked to chloroprene exposure.”
Following the EPA’s letter, Louisiana Congressman Troy Carter has spoken out in support of the school’s closure, adding:
“A society can be judged on how it treats its children and the most vulnerable members of its community. The high level of toxic exposure from the nearby Denka plant on a primarily African American Elementary School is a classic case of environmental injustice. We cannot accept the reality that people in our community – especially our beloved children – are being exposed to dangerous toxins. Your zip code should never define your destiny, and certainly not your health.“
Read the full letter in the reader below.