St. John School Board panel suggests study on moving students from school near chemical plant

[via The Advocate]

For years, environmentalists have called on the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board to relocate the 400 or so children at Fifth Ward Elementary School in Reserve, situated just blocks from the controversial Denka Performance Elastomer plant.

The board has offered sympathy, but little more. Now, that might be changing.

At its Aug. 20 meeting, the board's three-member Executive Committee unanimously recommended that the district study the idea of relocating the pre-K through eighth-grade students from the school.

The study would determine how much such a move might cost and how it might affect the other schools across the parish that would have to take in Fifth Ward’s students.

First, though, the full School Board must vote to approve the committee's recommendation. Board President Patrick Sanders plans to bring the proposal up Sept. 19.

The move highlights the growing awareness of — and willingness to consider action in response to — environmental concerns surrounding the Denka plant.

Residents and environmental activists contend the students are put at increased risk for cancer and respiratory illnesses because of the school's proximity to the plant, which uses the chemical chloroprene to produce a synthetic rubber used for wet suits and other products.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies the chemical as a likely carcinogen, and EPA readings have found the school has at times seen chloroprene levels at hundreds of times what the agency says is safe for long-term exposure.

School board member Albert “Ali” Burl III, who sits on the Executive Committee, said there’s no timetable for when students could potentially move. He expects the study to take two to three weeks once it is authorized.

But moving students to other schools isn't a simple task.

If the School Board decides to redraw school district boundaries, the new boundaries must receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice under a federal court desegregation order stemming from a 1992 lawsuit brought by the NAACP.

Another issue is whether moving the students would actually make a difference, Burl said, since EPA readings show all of St. John Parish regularly sees chloroprene levels in the air above 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter — the threshold the EPA has set as a safe level for long-term exposure.

“I think we still need to get more information. We’re getting conflicting reports,” Burl said.

In a statement, a spokesman for Denka, formerly a DuPont plant, criticized the EPA’s science. “Discussion about the health of students at the Fifth Ward Elementary School is based on a risk suggestion provided by the Integrated Risk Information System for chloroprene," plant spokesman Jim Harris said. "However, that suggestion is not law, nor is it an emission limit. (Denka) complies with its environmental permits.”

Further complicating matters: The school system has been led by an interim superintendent since Kevin George left the position in June. The board hopes to have a permanent replacement in place by Jan. 1.

Burl said the School Board wants to move “very cautiously” with the information it has now, but he added that protests by environmentalists at Fifth Ward on the first day of school this month, as well as a recent study from the University Network for Human Rights, brought the issue back to the board’s attention.

“If they come in and bring concrete evidence, it would be a no-brainer — we’d move them tomorrow,” Burl said, referring to the possibility the state or federal government would say the children are at greater risk because they go to school so close to the plant.

Robert Taylor, who heads the environmental activist group Concerned Citizens of St. John, said it’s about time the School Board takes some action. Taylor — who attended Fifth Ward when it was a high school in the 1950s — said the group has been asking the board to move the students for three years.

“That’s ludicrous, man — that you could expose children to a dangerous chemical like that,” he said.

Ruhan Nagra