Louisiana’s ‘Gas Chamber’ Activists Criticize Japan’s “Cancer Alley” Plant

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

By Allison Pestotnik
Tokyo – (PanOrient News) Feeling that they’ve only been ignored by both industry and government, American activists from “cancer alley” are in Japan again this week, seeking support in their case against a Japanese-owned petrochemical plant that they assert is making their community sick through chemical emissions.

“In the 21st century, what does it take to treat people like humans?” asked Robert Taylor, speaking on behalf of a group of concerned citizens at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Taylor lives near the Denka Performance Elastomer. The risk of developing cancer from air pollution in the immediate vicinity of the plant is higher than anywhere else in the United States, and it is located in the larger “cancer alley”, a stretch of land along the Mississippi River in the state of Louisiana that is home to over 150 chemical plants and oil refineries.

Taylor said that the plant, originally owned by DuPont but now 70% owned by the Japanese Denka Co. Ltd. and 30% by Mitsui Co. Ltd., went into operation in 1969. His last daughter was born the same year and grew up near the plant.

“She got diseases I can’t pronounce still,” said Taylor, which he said eventually took his daughter’s life.

It’s the second time this year that representatives from the Louisiana community, together with the social justice advocacy group University Network for Human Rights, have come to Japan. The first was in June, when they tried to attend Denka’s annual shareholder meeting but were ultimately denied entrance. They did, however, manage to meet with two shareholders privately.

Robert Taylor

Before the shareholder meeting, Denka issued a statement online saying that the cancer risk associated with chloroprene, one of the chemicals emitted by the plant, was “overestimated.” However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies chloroprene as a “likely human carcinogen” and has called for a significant reduction in emissions from the Denka plant.

“It’s unbelievable that they tell us we shouldn’t be concerned,” said Lydia Gerard, another activist at Tuesday’s press conference. She said one could walk down the street in her town and point out house after house where occupants had been afflicted with cancer.

Assertions by locals that pollution from the plant has been causing cancer coincide with findings from a survey released two months ago by the University Network for Human Rights, which calculated the cancer rate within 1.5 kilometers of the plant to be about 44% higher than the national rate, a number highly unlikely to be due to chance.

In addition to cancer, the activists assert that chemicals are also causing other health problems, including headaches, nosebleeds, chest pain, wheezing, watery eyes, skin irritation and tachycardia, or an unusually quick resting pulse. The high rates of diagnosed tachycardia near the plant were found by the survey to be virtually impossible to be due to chance.

“When I was growing up you hardly ever heard of kids having these kinds of problems,” said Gerard, in reference to the reports of asthma and other health issues in children.

Lydia Gerard

The findings were questioned by Denka, however, which issued a critique of the report in August. The critique asserts that the organization adhered to faulty methods of data gathering and that its findings are therefore not scientifically valid.

One of the biggest points of contention is the 5th Ward Elementary School, located in proximity to the plant. While the local school board recently stated that it would consider moving out of the area, a state government website states that Louisiana Department of Health officials “indicated that they have found no reason that children cannot attend the school.”

The government website also reported that Denka has taken measures to reduce emissions over the last couple years and that reductions have been recorded as a result.

But the activists are not convinced; Taylor said that he considered it the same as forcing children into a gas chamber and that he couldn’t believe that the school board has only now decided to consider moving.

“Those children are still there,” he said. “Those levels have not gone down.”

He is also insulted by the suggestion by some that simply moving away is the answer.

“We built our homes there,” he said. “We owned those homes, and a big old plant plops down on top of us and has the audacity to tell us, ‘why don’t you move?’”

According to Taylor and Gerard, a significant part of the problem is that the affected community is predominantly African American and poor. For those reasons, they consider their community to be less cared about in the U.S.

Whether or not their concerns fall on more sympathetic ears across the globe remains to be seen. While in Japan, the activists are hoping to be able to again meet with Denka shareholders. And they have a simple message for the company:

“Respect our human rights, Denka,” said Taylor. “At least talk to us.”

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