US to hold surprise plant inspections targeting pollution in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley

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Environmental Protection Agency seeks to protect local community from sites suspected of air pollution violations

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has unveiled plans to conduct unannounced inspections of plants suspected of air pollution violations in the heavily industrialized region in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley and other locations around the US south.

The move, announced on Wednesday morning alongside other significant new enforcement and monitoring actions, is aimed at reining in pollution in an area with much of America’s most toxic air.

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The agency intends to expand air monitoring in a number of locations visited by the EPA administrator, Michael Regan, last November, and will work to develop new measuring techniques for the “emerging contaminants” chloroprene and ethylene oxide. Both pollutants are likely or known human carcinogens that are emitted at dangerous levels in locations around the region, notably in St John the Baptist parish.

Regan unveiled a new air monitoring program in the parish, which is the location of the Guardian’s extended Cancer Town series, around the fence line of a synthetic rubber plant operated by the Japanese chemicals firm Denka. The site is the only location in America to emit chloroprene and does so at levels regularly above the EPA’s lifetime exposure guidance of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

In a letter addressed to the CEO of Denka and the plant’s former operator, the chemical giant DuPont, which was shared with the Guardian, Regan expressed significant concern about the effects of chloroprene emissions on children at a nearby elementary school, which sits close to the Denka fence line.

“As a parent I remain extremely concerned about the more than 500 children at the elementary school. I am writing to you today to reiterate what I hope are our shared concerns and expectations regarding the health and wellbeing of the students,” Regan writes. “The EPA expects DuPont and Denka to take other needed action to address community concerns.”

In a press release, the administrator also announced his enforcement and compliance office would work with the US Department of Justice to seek “additional and timely avenues of relief” for residents around the plant. The EPA did not provide further details.

Related: Residents of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley hopeful for action after EPA head’s visit

A spokesperson for Denka said the company had just received the letter and would review it. “That said, we look forward to a continued dialogue with Administrator Regan and the EPA,” the spokesperson said, adding that the company had been “working with the community for some time and will continue to do so”.

In neighboring St James parish, Regan said his department would provide technical assistance to the US army corps of engineers in an ongoing re-evaluation of a proposed plastics facility operated by the Taiwanese company Formosa, in effect placed on hold by the Biden administration last August amid widespread community concern.

The gargantuan facility had been permitted to emit 13m tonnes of greenhouse gasses a year, the equivalent of three coal-fired power plants, along with 15,400lb of ethylene oxide.

In the same parish, the administrator announced enforcement action against a steel plant, run by the industrial giant Nucor, which last year was revealed to have been quietly emitting cancer-causing sulphuric acid mist and hydrogen sulphide for six years without a permit.

In unveiling a new plan of unannounced inspections in the region, Regan told reporters: “We want to keep these facilities on their toes so that they’re doing their due diligence all the time, not just when there’s a planned EPA inspection.”

He added: “When facilities are found to be non-compliant, we will use all available to to hold them accountable.”

The EPA also announced a $600,000 investment in mobile air pollution monitoring equipment to be used throughout the Cancer Alley region, in the town of Mossville, Louisiana and other locations around the south.

In the neighborhood of Gordon Plaza, in New Orleans, a cancer hotspot built on top of a toxic waste site in the 1980s, Regan announced he would expedite a federal review of the site, which would commence in March this year.