MAC/20: Mines and Communities

USA: ElementUS Rare Earth Project announced in Louisiana

Published by MAC on 2021-04-28
Source: Propublica, Jamaica Gleaner, Nola.com

Game-changing green venture?

Noranda announced its plans to extract rare earth elements at the Alumina refinery site in Gramercy, Louisiana. The ElementUS project aims to obtain valuable minerals from a 35 million dry-ton residual tailings, which has been confirmed to contain high concentrations of rare earths, titanium and iron. ElementUS will locate and build a separation and extraction plant near the refinery with an annual processing capacity of 1 million tons. Separation and extraction will occur primarily through proprietary residual bauxite processing technology developed by Toronto-based Enervoxa. For every 1 ton of alumina produced, upwards of 1.2 tons of red sludge is created.

While the project is referred to as "game-changing green venture", Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality oversight of the refinery emissions has been elementary. One day, Noranda learned it was releasing mercury into the air since the beginning of operations in 1959. The company is actually among the top five emitters of mercury into the air in the country. Mercury from the plant found its way into the Blind River, where advisories have been issued regarding high levels found in fish. Having emerged from bankruptcy in 2016, Noranda agreed to pay only $95,750 to settle over the unpermitted mercury emissions. Previous owner Kaiser Aluminum operated the Gramercy plant and sold 50 percent in 2004 and the rest in 2009.

The red dirt processed at Gramercy was extracted from large scale mining operations in Jamaica and then transported to the Luisiana plant, where it was blasted with caustic soda to convert it into alumina. Eight years ago, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) and Japan’s Nippon Light Metals entered in a partnership for the extraction of rare earth minerals from bauxite tailings. Millions of tonnes of the stuff are around the island in red mud ponds or dried and stacked in the vicinity of various refineries.

See also:

2016-09-19 USA: Massive sinkhole at Mosaic waste pile leaks radioactive water into Floridan aquifer

Jamaica lost plot on rare earth extraction

https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20210421/editorial-jamaica-lost-plot-rare-earth-extraction

April 21, 2021

In what they cast as a “groundbreaking” development, DADA Holdings, the ultimate parent of Jamaica’s Noranda Bauxite, last week announced a joint venture with a Canadian green technology outfit, Enervoxa, to extract rare earth elements (REEs) from the bauxite residue at an alumina refinery in Gramercy, Louisiana. That facility is owned by another DADA subsidiary, New Day Aluminium. The partnership will operate under the name ElementUS.

“ElementUS plans to build a one-million-ton-per-year, state-of the-art and environmentally friendly reclamation, separation and beneficiation facility on New Day’s property in Gramercy and begin marketing the offtake of the various components in material,” a statement from DADA said.

The company said that it has approximately 35 million dry tonnes of readily accessible “mineral-rich bauxite residue” at the Gramercy site, which will require no further mining or transportation. The implication is that ElementUS has a competitive advantage over other US extractors of rare earth metals.

Several factors in this development are of significance to Jamaica. The first is the economic and strategic importance of the 17 rare earth metals. They are increasingly critical in the manufacturing of components for high-tech, digital equipment, especially in green technology. China used to have a near monopoly on, and is still the major producer of, these metals. However, about 10 of them can be found in bauxite and in the effluent from alumina refineries, which ought to provide a space for countries like Jamaica, if the cost of extracting the metals is commercially competitive.

Several years ago, when Beijing flexed its muscles over the export of these minerals, the markets reacted with a shiver and spiralled upwards. Firms started to look for other suppliers. Alternatively, extraction technologies got a fillip. Enthusiasm waned as markets stabilised. The deepening geopolitical and economic rivalry between the United States and China, however, is reviving strategic concerns in the West about where these important metals will come from in the future. Diversification is again on the agenda.
 
POSSIBILITIES

For Jamaica, the immediately significant factor in the DADA announcement is the possibilities that it suggests. Indeed, it is a reminder that the island was, and ought to have remained, substantially ahead of ElementUS in extracting rare earth elements from the residue from alumina refineries.

Eight years ago, the Government’s Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) and Japan’s Nippon Light Metals entered a 50:50 partnership for the extraction of rare earth minerals from bauxite residue. Millions of tonnes of the stuff are around the island in red mud lakes or dried and stacked in the vicinity of the island’s alumina refineries. Nippon spent US$50 million on an experimental laboratory and production facility at the JBI compound at Hope Pastures to develop and refine techniques to do precisely what ElementUS is about to start. New extraction processes/technologies were patented.

Apparently, however, the softening price for REEs meant that it was not economical to scale up the Nippon-JBI operation beyond the experimental plant. That, at least, is the assumption. Further, it is not this newspaper’s sense that much has happened with the project over the past five years. Or, it seems, with the JBI.

While technologies for mining REEs from bauxite are not entirely novel, Nippon apparently broke new ground with some of its applications for doing so commercially from residues. Perhaps the DADA announced initiative, whose processes were not disclosed, will be an impetus to revisit the Nippon-JBI agreement.
 
REPORT STATUS

Indeed, the mining minister, Robert Montague, should report on the status of the partnership, including if work has been taking place over the last half-decade, and the possibility of it being revived. JAMPRO, in the investment promotion, had at one stage boasted of companies lining up to pour millions of dollars in the nascent sector. It, too, should say if it is possible to resuscitate these deals.

But as these developments emphasise, there is usually a significant lead time between having new ideas, developing new technologies, and bringing products to market. Countries and firms have to be prepared. They have investment in R&D, and it is best if there is synergy between research institutions and private enterprise. That does not happen sufficiently in Jamaica.

The Nippon-JBI agreement is one thing. But iron, titanium and other metals and minerals are found in bauxite and its effluent. In an article in this newspaper in 2013, Carlton Davis, a renowned expert on the global bauxite industry and a former Cabinet secretary, urged The University of the West Indies to conduct research on their efficient extraction. We have no evidence that the university either noted or heard. It is still not too late to start.

 
ElementUS Advances $800 Million Rare Earth Elements Project In Louisiana

New joint venture would convert residual bauxite from Noranda site in St. James Parish.

https://www.opportunitylouisiana.com/led-news/news-releases/news/2021/03/05/elementus-advances-800-million

03.05.21

GRAMERCY, La. — Today, Gov. John Bel Edwards joined DADA Holdings Chairman and CEO David D’Addario and Enervoxa CEO Vandit Verma to announce that ElementUS, a joint venture of DADA and Enervoxa, will make an $800 million capital investment to extract rare earth elements at the Noranda Alumina site in Gramercy, Louisiana, subject to a final investment decision within the next year.

DADA Holdings owns Gramercy-based Noranda Alumina and is partnering with green technology firm Enervoxa to separate rare earth elements and other valuable minerals from alumina byproducts. The Gramercy site has a 35 million dry-ton reserve of mineral-rich residual bauxite. The carbon-neutral project would result in 200 new direct jobs, with an average annual salary of more than $85,000, plus benefits. Louisiana Economic Development estimates an additional 590 new indirect jobs would result, for a total of nearly 800 new jobs in Louisiana’s Southeast Region and surrounding areas.

“Since we launched our Climate Initiatives Task Force in 2020, we continue to emphasize the extraordinary natural resources Louisiana possesses in our existing petrochemical and energy sector,” Gov. Edwards said. “ElementUS represents another example of how we can achieve a lower-carbon future by adapting the resources that already exist in Louisiana, applying new technology and leveraging our talented industrial workforce.”

Today, Noranda Alumina employs more than 400 manufacturing workers at the Gramercy site, which also serves as headquarters for New Day Aluminum, a DADA Holdings company that includes Noranda Alumina; a bauxite subsidiary in Jamaica; affiliated alumina and specialty minerals businesses in Louisiana, France and the U.K; and a ferrous and non-ferrous recycling business with operations in the southeastern United States.

“We could not be more thrilled to be partnering with Enervoxa on this game-changing green venture in Louisiana,” D’Addario said. “Rare earth elements are in short supply and are vital to national defense, critical technologies and domestic industry in general. We, alongside Enervoxa, have the opportunity to extract and commercialize valuable rare earths and other minerals while at the same time further reducing the environmental footprint at our alumina refining business and the U.S. dependence on China for these limited and technologically strategic minerals.”

“We are excited to be partnering with DADA Holdings and bringing our green technology to Louisiana and the Noranda Alumina site,” Verma added. “We have a proud history of developing and implementing green technology projects, and are confident that the partnership of ElementUS, Noranda Alumina and the great state of Louisiana will be a long and mutually beneficial one.”

From Noranda’s 3,300-acre St. James Parish site neighboring St. John the Baptist Parish on the Mississippi River, ElementUS will locate near the Noranda Alumina refinery and build a separation and extraction plant with an annual capacity in excess of 1 million tons. The residual bauxite has been confirmed to contain high concentrations of 10 of the 17 rare earth elements targeted by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, along with titanium, iron and other minerals and metals valuable to U.S. industry and consumer demand. Separation and extraction of the minerals will occur primarily through proprietary residual bauxite processing technology developed by Toronto-based Enervoxa.

“St. James Parish’s industrial base is broad and diverse, and we continue to welcome environmentally responsible companies who do their part to provide career employment and enrich the lives of our residents,” said Parish President Pete Dufresne. “We look forward to learning more about Noranda’s new endeavor."

“Noranda Alumina is a valued industrial partner and we are pleased to see the $800 million capital investment in this carbon-neutral project, which will create new job opportunities for residents and generate momentum for our economy,” said St. John the Baptist Parish President Jaclyn Hotard. “With a welcoming business climate, talented workforce and strong infrastructure, our region remains an ideal destination for new business ventures and St. John is proud to be a part of that progression.”

In addition to defense applications, rare earth elements provide key performance attributes for a variety of industrial and consumer products, such as batteries, magnets, refining catalysts, aircraft engines, electric vehicles, smartphones, digital cameras, computers, flat-screen TVs, lighting and medical scanning equipment. The ElementUS project would be located within the 54-mile jurisdiction of the Port of South Louisiana, the largest port by tonnage in the Western Hemisphere.

“The Port of South Louisiana is delighted at the prospect of welcoming a new stakeholder into the port district,” said Executive Director Paul G. Aucoin of the Port of South Louisiana. “This new venture will be using byproducts from Noranda to extract rare earth minerals and other commodity metals, such as iron, titanium and additional alumina. The port is also excited about the potential 200 new jobs for the residents of the River Parishes and the increased job security for the over 400 Noranda Alumina employees.”

LED began formal project discussions with ElementUS in late 2020. Subject to a final investment decision, the State of Louisiana will offer a $6 million performance-based grant and the comprehensive workforce solutions of LED FastStart® – the nation’s No. 1 state workforce training and talent attraction program. In addition, ElementUS is expected to utilize the state’s Quality Jobs and Industrial Tax Exemption programs.

“We’re proud to see the creation of this new facility will create hundreds of high-demand, high-wage job opportunities for the people of St. James Parish, St. John the Baptist Parish and surrounding areas,” said President and CEO Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc. “This announcement further proves that global companies can not only thrive in Southeast Louisiana, but that the region’s strong workforce and logistical advantages can lead to future expansions, as evidenced by this joint venture.”

ElementUS is completing its front-end engineering and design for the project. Upon a final investment decision, construction could be completed within two years in a building phase that would generate an estimated 2,200 construction-related jobs.

About DADA Holdings
DADA Holdings is an investment and management company based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that makes control investments and manages companies in basic industries, such as metals and mining. The partners of DADA Holdings are the principal owners of New Day Aluminum and its subsidiaries, Noranda Alumina, located in Gramercy, Louisiana, which produces metallurgical and non-metallurgical aluminas; and Noranda Bauxite, located in St. Ann, Jamaica, which mines and ships bauxite globally. New Day also owns and operates NICHE Chemical, the primary supplier of chemical-grade alumina in North America, along with specialty minerals businesses, Niche Fused Alumina in La Bâthie, France, and Niche Fused Magnesia in Hull, England, as well as ReNew Recycling, a ferrous and nonferrous metal processing and recycling business with operations in four Southeastern U.S. states. For more information, visit NewDayAl.com

About Enervoxa
Enervoxa is a multi-integrated infrastructure and renewable energy construction company based in Canada with its operations worldwide. Enervoxa implements its very own core technologies on large to mid-scale plants that are designed to process different types of tailings in the mining sector; treat contaminated water and sewage; provide desalination; and convert waste and biomass into power, all while supplying a complete turnkey solution. Enervoxa is emerging as a key player in the hydrogen infrastructure space with a new generation of hydrogen production technologies, while utilizing CO2 at the same time. For more information, visit Enervoxa.com
 
Louisiana should better identify air pollution violations, speed enforcement, auditor says

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN

https://www.nola.com/news/business/article_e5381f4a-5f5e-11eb-a97c-635c83e7c20d.html

Jan 26, 2021

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality needs to do a better job of identifying industrial polluters that don't properly report emission violations, and enforce those violations more aggressively, according to a management audit made public Monday by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.

The report found that the time it took for the LDEQ to issue enforcement actions after a known violation more than doubled between fiscal year 2015 and 2019, from nearly 10 months to nearly 20 months.

“As a result, there is a risk that facilities may have violations that remain uncorrected for years,” an audit summary said. “Best practices state that effective enforcement includes swift and predictable responses to violations.”

Auditors also found it could take as long as nine years from the time a company was cited for violating emission standards before it was ordered to pay a fine or had a settlement approved requiring the company to pay for a mitigation project.

The auditors also found the agency doesn’t adequately track the penalties it has assessed, or whether the penalties were paid.

The DEQ also needs to do a better job identifying facilities that fail to submit self-monitoring reports on emissions, and to speed its review of the reports for violations, the audit said.

Part of the agency's enforcement problems can be traced to DEQ’s reduced number of employees, employees’ high workloads, frequent staff turnover, “and ineffective data systems,” the audit said. Many of the audit's findings tracked those of a 2019 investigation by The Times-Picayune, The Advocate and ProPublica.

“Overall, we found DEQ could strengthen its monitoring and enforcement processes by identifying violations and issuing enforcement actions in a timelier manner,” Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said in a cover letter to the report.

“Louisiana has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile of any state,” the report said, based on data gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2018 Toxics Release Inventory, a self-reported measurement of toxic chemicals released into the air, land or water by individual facilities.

Based on TRI data, the audit said, in 2018, Louisiana had an average of 1,239 pounds of toxic air releases per square mile. Ohio, the second highest state, averaged 899 pounds per square mile.

The audit also pointed to the EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment, from 2014, which identified a number of Louisiana locations that have a high potential for cancer risks or high respiratory illness hazards linked to emissions from nearby manufacturing facilities.

“As a result, there is a risk that facilities may have violations that remain uncorrected for years,” an audit summary said. “Best practices state that effective enforcement includes swift and predictable responses to violations.”

Auditors also found it could take as long as nine years from the time a company was cited for violating emission standards before it was ordered to pay a fine or had a settlement approved requiring the company to pay for a mitigation project.

The auditors also found the agency doesn’t adequately track the penalties it has assessed, or whether the penalties were paid.

The DEQ also needs to do a better job identifying facilities that fail to submit self-monitoring reports on emissions, and to speed its review of the reports for violations, the audit said.

Part of the agency's enforcement problems can be traced to DEQ’s reduced number of employees, employees’ high workloads, frequent staff turnover, “and ineffective data systems,” the audit said. Many of the audit's findings tracked those of a 2019 investigation by The Times-Picayune, The Advocate and ProPublica.

“Overall, we found DEQ could strengthen its monitoring and enforcement processes by identifying violations and issuing enforcement actions in a timelier manner,” Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said in a cover letter to the report.

“Louisiana has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile of any state,” the report said, based on data gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2018 Toxics Release Inventory, a self-reported measurement of toxic chemicals released into the air, land or water by individual facilities.

Based on TRI data, the audit said, in 2018, Louisiana had an average of 1,239 pounds of toxic air releases per square mile. Ohio, the second highest state, averaged 899 pounds per square mile.

The audit also pointed to the EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment, from 2014, which identified a number of Louisiana locations that have a high potential for cancer risks or high respiratory illness hazards linked to emissions from nearby manufacturing facilities.

A spokesman for the DEQ said the skipped inspections were the fault of an employee who left the agency before they were discovered.

“When the records were reviewed, key documents for these three inspections were missing,” said DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley. “LDEQ immediately contacted the facilities and all confirmed that the inspector in question was not at the facility on the date of the scheduled inspection, although they were unaware of the missed inspections.

“LDEQ immediately sent inspectors to the facilities to perform the missed inspections, and the agency self-reported the omissions to the EPA inspector general,” Langley said. “EPA was satisfied with LDEQ’s actions.”

The new audit focused on the complex process – and especially the length of time – needed to follow up on reports filed by major permit holders.

When facilities submit required reports, the enforcement staff performs a cursory review to identify high-priority violations, the audit said.

“However, staff does not address any other violations at the time of this cursory review, such as submitting the report late or emissions that exceed permit limits,” the audit said.

Instead, in-depth reviews of the reports occur when officials are preparing for or have completed inspections – which are supposed to occur once every two years for every major permit holder.

Only then are the violations likely to be forwarded for enforcement, often a year and a half after they’ve occurred, the report said.

“For one semiannual report, DEQ did not identify that the facility failed to submit it for 2,255 days, or approximately six years,” the audit said -- again without naming the facility involved.

Adding to the delays is that the reports are mailed to DEQ and then manually scanned into the agency’s database, which the audit said results in unreliable reporting on when and whether the reports were received.

The auditors checked with environmental agencies in nine other states, and found that eight had already moved to requiring electronic submittal of reports or planned to do so soon.

In his response included in the audit, Brown said DEQ is developing its own software to allow the staff to better track violations. When complete, it should also issue notices to staffers of failures to submit reports on time or of violations. Brown did not say when the software would be ready.

The Legislative Auditor's office has produced a podcast, available here, explaining the highlights of their report for members of the Legislature.


 
In “Cancer Alley,” Toxic Polluters Face Little Oversight From Environmental Regulators

Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality has been accused of protecting the chemical industry it regulates. The agency is facing cutbacks as new plants are slated for communities that already have some of the country’s most toxic air.

Gordon Russell

The Times-Picayune and The Advocate

https://www.propublica.org/article/in-cancer-alley-toxic-polluters-face-little-oversight-from-environmental-regulators

Dec. 19, 2019

Five years ago, the owners of the Noranda Alumina plant on the border of St. John and St. James parishes in Louisiana discovered a big problem: They were emitting more than half a ton of mercury, a heavy metal that is toxic to humans and animals even in trace amounts, into the air each year. And the plant had likely been doing it for decades, in violation of its permit.

Plant officials, as required, alerted the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Then they asked for permission to keep doing what they had been doing.

The DEQ in late 2017 granted the request, giving Noranda a permit that allowed it to send 1,500 pounds of mercury into the air each year — a bit more than the plant’s owners estimated it had already been emitting. The permit called for the company to reduce that, over five years, to a maximum of 1,200 pounds.

Noranda’s previously undetected pollution made it easily the top emitter of mercury in Louisiana at the time and among the top five in the nation. The DEQ acknowledged that the unpermitted substance was wafting over the nearby town of Gramercy and the Blind River, where fish have long had elevated levels of mercury.

Agency officials said the Noranda plant couldn’t be held “solely responsible” for worrisome mercury levels in local fish. And they repeated an advisory that had been in place for years: People should limit their Blind River fish intake to a maximum of four meals per month — and no more than one in the case of pregnant women and children.

For its sins, Noranda agreed in May 2017 to pay a $95,750 fine. Rather than force the company to cut mercury emissions immediately, the DEQ required only that Noranda investigate ways to do so and to perform additional monitoring. In the meantime, it would be business as usual.

“The social and economic benefits of Noranda Alumina outweigh its adverse environmental impacts,” a DEQ official wrote in granting the company permission to emit mercury. “Notably, the Louisiana constitution requires balancing, not protection of the environment as an exclusive goal.”

DEQ officials pointed out that the plant, which was receiving a range of subsidies and tax breaks from the state’s economic development arm, employed 439 people, had a $58 million payroll and was considering hiring 75 new workers. Keeping it open was “critical to ensure a domestic supply” of the key material in aluminum.

The episode is emblematic of environmental oversight in Louisiana. Regulators try to work with industry rather than punish violators too severely. Permission to pollute is often granted long after the fact. And when fines or penalties are levied, they’re often too small to make an impact.

With an economy that relies on oil and gas exploration and petrochemical plants, Louisiana hasn’t been a trailblazer in environmental regulation. It wasn’t until Gov. Buddy Roemer took office in 1988 that the DEQ, created just four years earlier, grew its ranks and started making a concerted effort to force polluters to clean up their act.

But the “Roemer Revolution” would last just four years, in part because of industry blowback over the DEQ’s new zealousness. Today’s DEQ is a slimmer one. Almost unnoticed, the agency charged with protecting Louisiana’s fragile environment has absorbed startling cuts, mostly during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s eight-year tenure.

As Jindal prepared to leave office in 2016, the DEQ’s staffing had fallen by 36% since its peak 13 years earlier, according to an analysis by The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

The fines the DEQ metes out to offenders have also waned over time. As of this week, the agency has tallied just $1.6 million in fees and settlements. That’s the smallest amount in the last two decades, and it’s less than half the average over that time, DEQ records show.

How an Environmental Regulator Became Known for Protecting Industry

In the late 1980s, Louisiana’s governor made environmental protection a priority. He only lasted one term. Now, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has a reputation for going easy on industry.

In 2011, the EPA’s inspector general attempted to examine how states stack up in enforcing the nation’s primary environmental laws: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which deals with solid and hazardous waste. The findings were brutal for Louisiana. The inspector general found that in the six-year period studied, Louisiana was in the bottom quarter of all states in enforcing the Clean Air Act and the RCRA. It was slightly better, but still below average, in enforcing the Clean Water Act.

Summarizing the findings, the inspector general chalked up Louisiana’s failures to several factors: “a lack of resources, natural disasters, and a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.” DEQ officials derided the latter comment as hearsay.

The lack of resources the inspector general observed has only gotten worse. Since the report, the DEQ has lost a third of its staff. No similar assessment has been attempted since then, though more recent EPA reviews have shown improvements in how often facilities are inspected.

Chuck Carr Brown, who was named DEQ secretary in 2016 by Gov. John Bel Edwards, challenges the notion that his agency is understaffed. “The numbers don’t tell the whole story,” Brown said, adding that the EPA would not give the DEQ authority over federal environmental laws if it weren’t getting the job done.

“We have never missed these commitments. Whether we have 1,052 or 700 employees, we have remained protective of human health and the environment.”

As for the falloff in fines, Brown said, “Effectiveness is not measured by the amount of penalties collected but rather by overall compliance.” He noted progress in achieving air quality goals — especially with regard to ozone levels — across much of south Louisiana.

DEQ officials defended their handling of the Noranda episode, noting that the company self-reported the mercury problem and that the levels discovered in the air nearby did not violate Louisiana’s ambient air quality standards.

John Habisreitinger, executive vice president at Noranda, said the DEQ was tough but fair with the company.

“There were points in the process, as we were honing in on best practices with respect to monitoring, where they were very aggressive at holding us to a tighter standard,” he said. “We had to make sure we stayed within those levels. There was a lot of work and rigor that went into this.”

Louisiana’s environmental regulatory agency is hardly alone among its peers in having to tighten its belt. A recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group, found that, adjusting for inflation, 30 of the 48 states in the continental U.S. cut spending on environmental agencies between 2008 and 2018. Forty of them cut staffing.

But Louisiana was among the most aggressive, the analysis found. It ranked No. 4 among the states in the depth of its staffing cuts to its environmental agency and No. 2 in budget cuts during that time, the analysis found.

The cutbacks in Louisiana have arrived at a challenging time in the state, as low natural gas prices have spurred a wave of massive new industrial projects, mostly in and around Lake Charles and along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. An analysis by ProPublica and The Times-Picayune and The Advocate found that many of the new plants and expansions are going into communities that already have some of the most toxic air pollution in Louisiana — and the country.

While the DEQ’s budget has gotten a modest boost during Edwards’ tenure, the increased funding hasn’t come close to replenishing the agency’s ranks.

Other Episodes

The lax handling of the Noranda episode wasn’t atypical for the DEQ. Environmental groups and unhappy neighbors of industry have long complained that the agency is too deferential to polluters that also happen to be job creators.

Among the dissatisfied: Those living near the Denka plant in LaPlace, the only facility in America that emits chloroprene, which the EPA classifies as a “likely carcinogen.”

Because of those emissions, the EPA said in 2015 that people in the surrounding neighborhood face — by a significant margin — the nation’s highest risk of developing cancer from an airborne source. While the EPA has not set a legally enforceable limit on how much chloroprene a plant may emit, the agency set an average level of 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter as a safe threshold. Air monitoring by the EPA at six locations near the plant this year shows average concentrations ranging from 2.5 times to 17 times the level the agency has said is safe.

DEQ officials have not insisted that Denka meet that bar, which is not required under its permit. Instead, the DEQ has cast doubt on the validity of the EPA number. In the meantime, the agency and the plant’s owners signed a deal that called for chloroprene emissions to be reduced by 85% — a level that, if achieved, would still not meet the EPA’s guideline.

Denka officials in October announced they had cut chloroprene by 86%. But the company would not have made the goal without revising upward its estimates of what it had emitted before the improvements.

The DEQ has not decided whether to accept Denka’s revised calculations, and so far it has asked that Denka provide a fuller explanation.

Brown, the DEQ’s secretary, has attended dozens of community meetings and says he’s sympathetic to Denka’s neighbors. But he thinks opportunists have hyped concerns about the facility and misled people who don’t understand science.

The Louisiana Tumor Registry is supposed to track every cancer case in the state, and it has found no cluster near Denka. By comparison, he notes, the risks identified by the EPA are totally theoretical.

Brown thinks the EPA’s focus on cancer risk has made people more fearful than they need to be, given the lack of evidence of a problem. “EPA has really not communicated risk versus rate effectively,” he said.

While Denka has invested a reported $35 million into pollution reductions at the DEQ’s urging, critics are upset that the company has yet to face any fine or official sanction.

“They should be facing millions of dollars in penalties,” said Eric Schaeffer, the former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement and now executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

But Jim Harris, a spokesman for Denka, says the DEQ has been plenty tough.

“They certainly have held us accountable,” Harris said. “DEQ is checking constantly to make sure we’re doing what we need to do.”

The donnybrook over Denka is hardly the first time the DEQ has found itself at odds with the EPA while defending a big Louisiana industry.

When the steelmaker Nucor announced plans in 2008 for a $3.4 billion, multiphase campus in Convent, in St. James Parish, it was a coup for the Jindal administration. As many as 1,250 people were going to work there one day, and the state was offering $160 million in tax incentives.

But environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, groused about the permitting process, saying that the DEQ should have forced Nucor to combine all of its air emissions under a single permit. Instead, the DEQ allowed the company to get different permits for different phases, which the groups complained would allow Nucor to pollute more.

Over the objections of neighbors and environmentalists, the DEQ set a crucial public hearing on those questions for Dec. 28, 2010, right in the middle of the holidays. A month later, the state awarded two key permits.

The owners of a nearby grain elevator, Zen-Noh, sued in federal court in New Orleans and state court in Baton Rouge to challenge the permits and stop construction of the plant. Zen-Noh argued that the allowable emissions could harm their product and sicken their workers. (Less altruistically, the company also said Nucor’s emissions could unfairly limit how much neighbors, including Zen-Noh, were allowed to pollute in the future.)

A Nucor spokesman said at the time that it was “regrettable that in this time of high unemployment that the environmental permitting process would be exploited to stop industrial growth in this country.”

The grain elevator’s owners apologized for taking actions that could get in the way of economic development, but they said they had “no choice.”

“It must be remembered that DEQ had the option of permitting the plant correctly all along and chose to do otherwise,” company president John Williams said at the time.

In the end, the EPA stepped in. Federal regulators ordered the DEQ to rewrite the permits to reduce the allowed emissions of certain toxic chemicals, including arsenic and benzene, and to limit the emissions of fine particulate matter, which is linked to lung disease.

In the end, only one of the five facilities Nucor had envisioned for the campus was built.

Of all the plants the DEQ regulates, Exxon Mobil’s hulking refinery and chemical manufacturing campus in Baton Rouge may be the hardest for the agency to look past. It’s not merely visible from the DEQ’s offices, its belching stacks dominate the capital’s northern neighborhoods. Exxon Mobil is Baton Rouge’s biggest taxpayer and one of its most influential corporate citizens.

Yet, it was the EPA, not the DEQ or its counterpart in Texas, that finally squeezed a major settlement out of Exxon Mobil for the company’s regular violation of the Clean Air Act by improperly burning waste gases at three facilities in Baton Rouge and five in Texas.

Exxon Mobil agreed in 2017 to pay a penalty of $2 million and to spend $300 million to install new pollution controls at its plants. The settlement was the culmination of a case the EPA had opened in 2010. (The DEQ was a party to the settlement and got a share of the fine, but the action was led by the EPA.)

The deal made one announced by the DEQ in 2014 seem paltry by comparison.

The DEQ agreement involved four Exxon Mobil facilities in and around Baton Rouge, and it covered a similar pattern of troubling conduct: unauthorized releases of millions of pounds of hazardous chemicals and other operational problems going back to 2008.

But what the DEQ got out of Exxon Mobil was a couple of orders of magnitude less: a $300,000 penalty plus a promise to spend a total of $2 million on pollution-control measures and environmental mitigation projects. It wasn’t just the money, either: The EPA also forced Exxon Mobil to limit its use of the flares responsible for much of its air pollution, and it got the company to agree to conduct fenceline monitoring of its emissions.

Exxon Mobil officials said they appreciated the way the DEQ resolved a series of penalties in one global agreement. “This agreement helped to resolve future incidents in a more efficient, transparent and objective manner,” said Stephanie Cargile, a spokeswoman for the oil giant’s Baton Rouge operations. “At the time, it was the first of its kind in the state.”

Cargile added that Exxon Mobil’s refinery has improved its environmental record dramatically in recent years, reducing toxic emissions overall by more than half in the last five years and cutting sulfur dioxide emissions by 79% — which won the company a leadership award from the DEQ.

Below the Minimum

DEQ officials insist they’ve always fulfilled their regulatory mission, and they promise they will continue to do so even with major staffing cuts.

But environmental watchdogs disagree on the first point and worry that the belt-tightening will make things worse. They point out the new projects being built around south Louisiana mean a monumental workload for the state employees overseeing a complex permitting process.

“I don’t doubt they have good people there,” said Schaeffer, the former EPA official. “But if you’ve got a giant buildout of oil and gas projects, how can you absorb a 30% cut to your staff?”

One way to pay for the shortage is through overtime. Since 2006, Louisiana has allowed industry to request “expedited permit processing.” About 230 applicants, most of them seeking air permits, have sought it this year; over half have already received their permits.

Expediting is supposed to pay for itself, because the applicant has to pay for the permit reviewer’s overtime. For industry, that line item may seem minor in the context of a project that could cost hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars.

Critics, meanwhile, say the system sets up a clear conflict of interest, with regulators unlikely to take a hard line on companies paying them time and a half.

“A student can’t pay a teacher who is grading his paper, and we shouldn’t let the industry pay the people reviewing its permits,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an activist group.

Even with the overtime, the cuts at the DEQ eventually got so deep that even some industry officials began to worry.

In February 2016, shortly after Edwards took office, the leaders of the trade associations for Louisiana’s chemical and oil and gas industries, with remarkable candor, both told The Advocate they supported hikes in their permitting fees.

“We know the department (DEQ) is suffering financially, so we understand the necessity to increase fees,” said Dan Borne, then the president of the Louisiana Chemical Association.

That year, the Legislature approved a 20% increase in air permit fees. The question is whether that was anywhere near enough.

Paul Templet, who was secretary of the DEQ during Roemer’s brief tenure, looks back on his time at the department three decades ago with pride and a measure of regret at the backsliding he has seen in the intervening decades.

He believes Louisiana’s regulators are still too cozy with the industries they’re supposed to be monitoring. In a recent interview, Templet recalled he often used public shaming as a tool, holding news conferences to denounce major polluters. He said pollution-control spending by Louisiana shot up exponentially during his tenure, which created jobs along with cleaner air.

“We would call out the 10 companies with the highest releases with the press out there and say, ‘You’re in the top 10; we want you to lower your releases,’” he said. “That got some reaction out of them. Industry doesn’t like being in the news, and one of the real tools the state has is to embarrass them.

“I don’t see any complaining by industry right now, which tells me that DEQ is not doing its job.”

Gordon Russell is the managing editor for investigations at The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. He has been reporting in Louisiana for more than 20 years.

 

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