It’s Thursday, March 2, and the Justice Department is suing a major polluter in “Cancer Alley.”

The Denka Performance Elastomer Plant at sunset in Reserve, La.

Some 10 months after opening a series of civil rights investigations into petrochemical pollution in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” — a heavily industrialized corridor northwest of New Orleans — the federal government is taking legal action against big polluters.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that it’s suing a major Japanese petrochemical company called Denka over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, arguing that its chemical plant in Reserve, Louisiana, poses an unacceptable risk to the health and welfare of the area’s majority-Black population. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, seeks a federal court order forcing Denka to “immediately take all necessary measures” to reduce emissions of a likely human carcinogen called chloroprene.

“The company has not moved far enough or fast enough to reduce emissions or ensure the safety of the surrounding community,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. His agency has repeatedly found chloroprene levels near the facility that exceed the maximum concentration recommended for human exposure.

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The suit is the result of a larger probe from the federal government into alleged environmental racism in Cancer Alley, where some majority-Black communities face a lifetime cancer risk that is 50 times higher than the national average. The EPA opened an investigation last April to determine whether state agencies had discriminated against Black residents when issuing permits for two pollution-intensive chemical plants — including Denka’s — and a grain terminal.

Deena Tumeh, a senior associate attorney for the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice, told my colleague Lylla Younes that the legal action means the EPA “has finally acknowledged this for what it is — an emergency.” Local groups cheered the lawsuit as well. “This makes me feel like we have something to look forward to, not five or 10 years from now — we need it to happen now,” Mary Hampton, a co-founder of the advocacy group Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish, told the Guardian.

Editor’s note: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

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