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Del. chemical plant sued for making residents ‘sacrificial lambs’ of ethylene oxide leaks

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Croda Inc. manufacturing plant

Delaware regulators fined Croda Inc. $246,000 for violations that led to a gas leak in November at its Atlas Point plant near the Delaware Memorial Bridge. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

A massive leak of flammable carcinogenic gas from a Delaware manufacturing plant nearly two years ago brought a $246,000 penalty from state environmental regulators and triggered cries from residents that they are living in harm’s way.

Now, the Croda Inc. plant near New Castle is the subject of a federal lawsuit. There is currently one plaintiff, area resident Catherine Baker, but the attorneys are seeking class-action status.

The release of nearly 2,700 pounds of ethylene oxide from Croda’s Atlas Point facility at the base of the Delaware Memorial Bridge closed the twin span and tied up Interstate 95 traffic for hours on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2018.

But the lawsuit accuses the plant of spewing “multiple tons” of the gas on nearby communities for the past two decades. The Environmental Protection Agency says ethylene oxide exposure is linked to lymphoma and breast cancer.

Adam Gomez, whose Wilmington law firm brought the court case, says the aim is to establish a fund that will pay for diagnostic testing for tens of thousands of current and former residents.

“The gas can linger for over 200 days. That allows it to move with wind patterns throughout the community and exposes them to the unnecessary risk of developing these bloodborne and other cancers,’’ Gomez told WHYY.

Sandra Smithers heads the civic group in the Dunleith neighborhood about two miles from the plant. Smithers hopes she and her neighbors can join the lawsuit.

“If there is no diagnostic testing we can’t connect some of the health issues in this area with chemical releases or any of the pollutants,’’ Smithers said.

State Rep. Franklin Cooke, who represents the area, said the people who live in the shadow of the plant have elevated cancer rates and deserve legal and environmental justice.

“We’re in a cancer zone. Sometimes they call it a cluster,’’ Cooke told WHYY, saying he supported the lawsuit. “We have to do something so we can get people held accountable and have something done about it. This is very serious.”

Gov. John Carney had praised the plant in 2017 after it underwent a $170 million upgrade, saying he “can’t think of a better facility’’ for the foot of the bridge.

No one from New Jersey-based Croda or the plant would agree to an interview about the lawsuit or its operations.

In a written statement, marketing director Cara Eaton said the company is “reviewing it closely’’ and called Croda “a proud corporate citizen of the New Castle community, focused on safe and socially responsible business practices.”

Smithers disagreed.

“No, Croda has not been a good neighbor,’’ she said. “It may have benefited the state as a whole, but these communities are like sacrificial lambs. What do the community residents get out of it other than poor health outcomes?”

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