Activists fight Denka, Japanese company that launches carcinogens in the US air

Lydia Gerard and Robert Taylor never came close to losing their composure, even when it became clear that 12.000's journey from the southern United States to Japan was about to become futile.

Denied even by the courtesy of a brief meeting - in a country famous for its levels of civility - with representatives of a Japanese company they blamed for throwing a toxic chemical into the air above their hometown, they listened patiently as uniformed guards told them. repeatedly: turn around and leave - immediately.

They had walked together through the lunchtime drizzle to the bright building of Denka headquarters in central Tokyo, clinging to the hope that on this second trip to the Japanese capital in three months, they would have a chance to make their case for themselves. the best placed people to end the misery of their city.

Less than a week earlier, Gerard, 65, and Taylor, 79, left the Reserve, Louisiana, for one purpose only: to present evidence to Denka, a Japanese chemicals company, that toxic emissions from their plant are responsible. for unusually high rates of cancer and a litany of other diseases in his hometown.

Instead, during an unannounced visit to Denka headquarters, they came across a wall of silence during an attempt to find company representatives.

Surrounded by security guards before they could enter the company premises, Gerard and Taylor were informed that no one from Denka was prepared to talk to them or accept a copy of a study by the University Human Rights Network (UNHR), published in July, which found that residents near the factory, operated by Denka's US subsidiary, contracted cancer at unusually high rates.

A census tract near the factory has the highest cancer risk anywhere in the United States due to air toxicity, 50 times above the national average, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Lydia Gerard and Robert Taylor in Tokyo. Photo: Justin McCurry

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

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

After failing an answer, Gerard tried again. "Someone from Denka could please come down and get it," she said, referring to the health study from UNHR, a US-based civil society group that organized her trip to Japan.

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

Toxic emissions in Reserve, a town in the parish of St. John the Baptist - a predominantly black working-class community - come mainly from the facilities of Pontchartrain Works, the only place in the US to make synthetic rubber neoprene.

Reserve is the focus of a one-year Guardian series, Cancer Town, which examines the city's struggle for clean air, as well as other communities in the area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, colloquially known as Cancer Alley.

Former Dupont, now owned by Denka Chemical Plant, located in Reserve, Louisiana, on 11 July 2019. Photography: Bryan Tarnowski / The Guardian

The US government considers chloroprene, the main constituent of neoprene, as probably carcinogenic to humans. The Japanese government, however, does not classify chloroprene as a hazardous chemical, and no public record is kept of chloroprene emissions in Omi, off the coast of Japan, where Denka manages the only plant in the country that makes the product. but through a different process than that used in your factory in the Reserve.

When the group traveled east from Tokyo to Chiba Prefecture, home of a large Denka chemical plant, officials 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 school-age children.

The Reserve plant, originally built by US chemical giant DuPont, went live at 1968. The company sold it to Denka shortly before the EPA report was published on 2015.

Speaking to reporters at the Japan Foreign Correspondents Club the day before her fruitless visit to Denka headquarters, Gerard, who was born near the factory and raised a family there, said her husband “has always been healthy and we believe [the cancer] was the result of chloroprene from the Denka facility.

“We don't want to move. The plant needs to reduce emissions or needs to move. It's Denka's responsibility to be good neighbors, but they don't see the need to cut emissions. There is no reason why they cannot do what is necessary. “

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

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

The impasse was the repetition of a failed attempt by Taylor and Gerard to enter Denka's general assembly during their first visit to Japan in July.

Lydia Gerard in front of her Reserve house, next to a memorial of her late husband, Walter Gerard, who died in 2018. Photography: Julie Dermansky / The Guardian

"They don't talk to us," said Taylor, whose adult daughter, Raven, is ill with a rare bowel disease - gastroparesis - which he said doctors had linked to chloroprene. “This is how they treat us - as if we were nothing. We got the same from DuPont and Denka, even in my backyard, and from the Louisiana governor. This strategy is useless - they will never allow us to get in there. We are seen as the lowest fruit because we are the least able to protect ourselves. "

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

Outside, under the drizzle, Gerard reflected on another failed attempt to get involved with the company she blames for the cancer that killed her husband.

"It all shows how big business feels about people like us," she said, sheltering under an umbrella. “They don't want to hear what we have to say. Everyone wants us to leave and be quiet. But let's not do that. ”

But she and Taylor expressed hope that their visit would generate more interest in their situation in Japan, where the media largely ignored the allegations made against the company. After their most recent visit, a large daily newspaper and a weekly business magazine said they plan to publish articles on the subject.

UNHR was able to secure a meeting with the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), which helped fund Denka's purchase of DuPont's factory.

JBIC officials declined to discuss their 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 speak only in general terms about project finance procedures, he added.

JBIC classifies the Denka plant as a Category C project, meaning that it has determined that the plant “will likely have minimal or no adverse environmental impact” and does not require environmental review or monitoring.

JBIC representatives declined to discuss why the bank selected this rating when pressed by Nagra. It is not clear whether a C rating would prevent Reserve residents from filing a complaint through the JBIC internal complaints process.

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

"We are so insignificant to them that they use dogs to keep us from entering," he said. “To talk to us would be to admit that we are human. It's like they're saying, 'We can dump whatever we want into your community and you have to sit down and let it happen.' ”

Source: Guardian

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