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Synthetic rubber plant in crosshairs amid high cancer risk in Louisiana community

Reserve, Louisiana — Up and down Lydia Gerard's street in the small Louisiana community of Reserve, she points to the homes of neighbors who have either died of cancer, or now have a terminal diagnosis of the disease.

"It's almost everywhere you look," Gerard told CBS News.

Just outside Reserve — a town with a majority-Black population — the Denka Performance Elastomer plant makes neoprene, a synthetic rubber. One of its components, chloroprene, a known carcinogen, is released regularly into the air.

In February, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department sued the chemical manufacturer Denka, alleging its plant posed "an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health," along with chemical company DuPont, the plant's property owner. 

The EPA found that chloroprene emissions were up to 14 times higher than recommended levels.

According to the EPA, cancer risk in Reserve is about 50 times the national average. Reserve is located within an 85-mile stretch of Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which contains more than 200 plants and refineries. The stretch is nicknamed "cancer alley" due to the high cancer rate in the region. 

Lydia's husband, Walter Gerard, died of kidney cancer in 2018, and she blames the plant for his death.

"Until they prove that they didn't do it, then I will say that they did," Gerard said.

Chloroprene is considered especially toxic to children and can mutate their DNA. Fifth Ward Elementary School, and its hundreds of children, is located within 450 feet of the Denka property.

"The monitoring stations show that it's unacceptable," environmental scientist Dr. Kimberly Terrell, a professor at the Tulane University School of Law, said of the toxicity levels at the school.

A January 2022 study co-authored by Terrell found a link between cancer and toxic air pollution in places like Reserve. 

"And it's not by a slight margin," Terrell said. "It's like 10 times higher than what would be the acceptable level."

In a statement provided to CBS News, Denka said it has reduced chloroprene emissions by 85% and invested $35 million to reduce pollution. However, the Justice Department contends Denka has not moved quickly enough to address the issue, and Terrell agrees.

"It's like going to your doctor and saying, 'Well, yeah, I smoke a pack a day, but I used to smoke five packs a day,'" Terrell said.

Gerard recently had a cancer scare herself. She feels stuck, and said if she tried to sell her house, who would buy it?

"How could they knowingly expose us like that, and us having this high risk?" Gerard asked.

 — Janet Shamlian contributed to this report. 

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