Japanese owners of plant at heart of US Cancer Town refuse to meet activists

[via The Guardian]

Residents of Reserve, Louisiana aimed to present evidence to Denka that its plant’s toxic emissions are responsible for high rates of cancer in their town

Lydia Gerard and Robert Taylor never came close to losing their composure, even when it became clear that that their 7,000-mile journey from the southern United States to Japan was about to come to nought.

Denied even the courtesy of a brief meeting – in a country fabled for its levels of civility – with representatives of a Japanese company they blame for spewing a toxic chemical into the air above their home town, they listened patiently as uniformed guards repeatedly told them to turn around and leave – immediately.

They had walked together through the lunchtime drizzle to the gleaming high-rise housing the headquarters of Denka in central Tokyo, clinging to the hope that on this, their second trip to the Japanese capital in three months, they would be given the chance to make their case to the people best placed to end their town’s misery.

Less than a week earlier, Gerard, 65, and Taylor, 79, had left Reserve, Louisiana, with a single aim: to present evidence to Denka, a Japanese chemicals company, that its plant’s toxic emissions are responsible for unusually high rates of cancer and a litany of other diseases in their hometown.

Instead, during an unannounced visit to Denka’s headquarters, they came up against a wall of silence during an attempt to meet the firm’s representatives.

Surrounded by security guards before they could enter the company’s premises, Gerard and Taylor were told that no one from Denka was prepared to talk to them or accept a copy of a University Network for Human Rights (UNHR) study published in July that found that residents near the plant, operated by Denka’s US subsidiary, have contracted cancer at unusually high rates. One census tract next to the plant has the highest cancer risk anywhere in America due to airborne toxicity, 50 times above the national average, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

After repeatedly being told to leave, Gerard broke her silence. “We live next to the Denka plant in Louisiana, and we have lots of concerns. We want to give them this information,” Gerard, whose husband, Walter, died of cancer last year, said to security guards in front of the building’s second-floor reception area.

Walter was diagnosed with the disease two years before the 2015 release of the EPA report.

After failing to get a response, Gerard tried again. “Could someone from Denka please come down and receive this,” she said, referring to the health study by the UNHR, a US-based civil society group that organised their trip to Japan.

Surrounded by guards and several men in business suits who could not be identified as their lanyard IDs were facing inwards, she added: “We don’t want to talk to them or receive any information, we just want to hand this to someone from Denka.”

The toxic emissions in Reserve, a town in St John the Baptist parish – a predominantly black, working-class community – come primarily from the Pontchartrain Works facility, the only place in the US to manufacture the synthetic rubber neoprene.

Reserve is the focus of a yearlong Guardian series, Cancer Town, examining the fight for clean air in the town, as well as other communities in the area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, known colloquially as Cancer Alley.

The US government considers chloroprene, the primary constituent of neoprene, as likely to be carcinogenic to humans. The Japanese government, however, does not class chloroprene as a dangerous chemical, and no public records are kept on chloroprene emissions in Omi, on the Japan Sea coast, where Denka runs the only plant in the country that manufactures the chemical, but via a different process than the one used at its plant in Reserve.

When the group travelled east of Tokyo to Chiba prefecture, home to a large Denka chemicals plant, staff told them that the facility did not produce chloroprene and politely declined requests for an impromptu guided tour of the facility similar to those offered to local schoolchildren.

The Reserve plant, originally built by the US chemicals giant DuPont, went into operation in 1968. The firm sold it to Denka just before the damning EPA report was published in 2015.

Speaking to journalists at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan the day before their fruitless visit to the Denka HQ, Gerard, who was born close to the plant and raised a family there, said her husband “had always been healthy, and we believe that [his cancer] was the result of chloroprene from the Denka facility.

“We don’t want to move. The plant has to bring emissions down, or it has to move. It’s Denka’s responsibility to be good neighbours, but they don’t see the need to bring emissions down. There is no reason why they can’t do what is necessary.”

Taylor and Gerard, accompanied by Ruhan Nagra, the executive director of UNHR, found their paths blocked by security guards as soon as they entered the second-floor lobby that houses the Denka headquarters.

The confrontation, witnessed by the Guardian, lasted about 25 minutes and ended after a stocky man in dark sunglasses who appeared to be head of security repeatedly asked the three to “leave the building immediately” and refused to accept and pass on the UNHR study.

The standoff was a repeat of an unsuccessful attempt Taylor and Gerard had made to enter a Denka shareholders’ meeting during their first visit to Japan in July.

“They won’t talk to us,” said Taylor, whose adult daughter, Raven, is ill with a rare intestinal disease – gastroparesis – that he said doctors had tied to chloroprene. “This is the way they treat us – like we’re nothing. We get the same from DuPont and Denka even though they’re in my front yard, and from the governor of Louisiana. This strategy is pointless – they’re never going to allow us in there. We’re seen as the low-hanging fruit because we are the least able to protect ourselves.”

At least one security guard followed Taylor, Gerard and Nagra to a subway station on the opposite side of the road.

Outside in the drizzle, Gerard reflected on another unsuccessful attempt to engage with the company she blames for the cancer that killed her husband.

“This all goes to show what big business feels about people like us,” she said, sheltering beneath an umbrella. “They don’t want to hear what we have to say. They all want us to go away and be quiet. But we’re not going to do that.”

But she and Taylor voiced hope that their visit would generate more interest in their plight in Japan, where the media have largely ignored the claims made against the company. Following their most recent visit, a major daily newspaper and a weekly business magazine have reportedly said they plan to run articles on the issue.

UNHR did manage to secure a meeting with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), which helped finance Denka’s purchase of the DuPont plant.

JBIC officials refused to discuss its involvement in the Denka project, however, citing ongoing litigation involving Denka, according to Nagra. At its meeting with Nagra, Taylor and Gerard, the bank would only talk in general terms about the procedures it follows when financing projects, she added.

The JBIC classifies the Denka plant as a category C project, meaning that it has determined that the plant “is likely to have minimal or no adverse environmental impact” and requires no environmental review or monitoring.

JBIC representatives refused to discuss why the bank had selected that classification when pushed by Nagra. It is not clear if a C classification would prevent Reserve residents from filing a complaint via the JBIC’s in-house grievance process.

Minutes after he and Gerard were left with no choice but to leave the Denka building, Taylor struggled to hide his bitterness towards the company – for its refusal to countenance that it is responsible for dangerously toxic air, and for its apparent disregard for the victims and their families.

“We’re so insignificant to them that they set the dogs on us to prevent us from going in,” he said. “To talk to us would be to admit that we’re human. It’s like they’re saying, ‘We can dump anything we want on your community and you have to sit down and let it happen.’”

Ruhan Nagra