DEQ eases up, somewhat, on testing it’s requiring Noranda to do to determine extent of mercury emissions in St. James Parish _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Shipping vessel 'Bulk Pangaea' sits docked in the Mississippi River at the Noranda Alumina refinery in Gramercy on Jan. 30, 2015. The state Department of Environmental Quality is investigating unexpected emissions of toxic mercury from the plant, while the company is testing how much of the toxin is being emitted. Bauxite used to make alumina has turned the plant, as well as ponds on the property, rusty red in color.

The sprawling Noranda Alumina complex near Gramercy has been treated for years by state and federal environmental regulators as a minor source when it comes to toxic and hazardous air pollutants.

The characterization is significant. The state Department of Environmental Quality can't require a minor source to use the most stringent control technology to trim toxic air emissions from the 3,300-acre complex straddling St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes along the Mississippi River, DEQ officials have said.

New ownership bought the facility in bankruptcy in the fall of 2016, two years after questions were raised about previously unknown air emissions of toxic mercury from the plant.

Earlier this year, Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state and local officials welcomed plans for a $35 million upgrade, company headquarters and plant expansion that would ultimately bring one of St. James' top employers and property taxpayers to 460 workers.

But attorneys with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and experts sought by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and other environmental groups are questioning the longstanding characterization of Noranda as a minor source as the new owners ask for permission to send up to 1,500 pounds of mercury per year into the air and become far and away Louisiana's top air emitter of mercury.

With the permit, the plant would also rival the top three facilities for mercury air pollution in the nation between 2013 and 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory database. Mercury is a heavy metal found to be harmful, even in tiny amounts, to the environment and people, especially children and fetuses. 

In a 208-page comment with attachments, Tulane, LEAN and other groups charge that DEQ has a public duty to force Noranda Alumina to limit its mercury emissions and, they say, limit further impact on nearby communities, the Maurepas Swamp and Blind River, which has long had mercury fish advisories.

"Should LDEQ alllow Noranda to continue as it has to contaminate the environment and aquatic life with mercury without imposing measures to reverse or stem this harm, it will have completely abdicated its duty as public trustee," wrote Corinne Van Dalen, Tulane law clinic supervising attorney.

More mercury than once thought

The groups used air modeling Noranda conducted and then estimated the amount of mercury falling out of the sky and into surrounding swamps and waterways. They argue the mercury is finding its way into fish and other aquatic life people eat.

Noranda extracts alumina from rust-colored bauxite ore shipped from Jamaica. The ore naturally contains mercury. The alumina refined in Gramercy is used to make aluminum in smelters up the Mississippi and in other chemical products.

The DEQ recently held a public hearing on the permit in Lutcher during which more than 40 comments were taken, said Greg Langley, agency spokesman, but DEQ is still reviewing the permit request and can't respond to public comments at this time.

In allowing the mercury emissions, Noranda's proposed air permit would approve what had been previously unknown, unauthorized and ongoing mercury air emissions discovered in 2014. The plant's former owners once suggested emissions could total less than 25 pounds per year, though subsequent testing and reporting to EPA showed emissions were as much as nearly 48 times higher.

Company officials then speculated that the former Kaiser Aluminum plant, which dates from the late 1950s, could have been emitting mercury for decades without anyone knowing. Noranda's former corporate owners, citing tough market conditions, filed for bankruptcy in February of 2016 not long after LEAN threatened a suit over alleged past emissions.

But air modeling and other tests by Noranda and DEQ found that even with the much higher than expected emissions, the state's ambient air standards for mercury were far from being surpassed so the emissions posed no health or environmental impact.

Apples and oranges, TAPs and HAPs

In arguing Noranda should be treated as a major source and subject to pollution controls, Tulane, LEAN and other groups claim Noranda has underestimated the amount of mercury naturally in its bauxite source, potentially skewing modeling results, didn't include other possible hazardous pollutants, and they claimed DEQ and Noranda aren't taking into account emissions from all sections of its plant. 

Tulane noted Noranda has two air permits for a docking area and red mud tailing ponds in addition to one currently up for modification and renewal for the heart of the facility. Law clinic attorneys argue the permits serve one operation and, if added up, would cross a key federal threshold that would require the best possible pollution controls. The threshold is 25 tons per year in total hazardous air pollutants. 

Under the permit under review, Noranda would release 21.663 tons a year while, according to Tulane's calculations, the other two air permits would add 4.89 more tons and bring total annual hazardous air pollutant emissions to 26.553 tons.

Noranda officials countered that emissions under all three air permits are being considered by the state but Tulane has employed math that ignores how state and federal regulations tally pollutant loads.

There are two categories of pollutants under the law that apply: toxic air pollutants defined by the state, known as TAPs, and hazardous air pollutants defined by the EPA, known as HAPs.

Though HAPs and TAPs are both are being emitted by Noranda, company officials argue, Tulane's math improperly mixes what the law sees as the apples and the oranges of air pollutants. Only 25 tons of apples or only 25 tons of oranges can be counted to determine whether control technology is needed and not 25 tons in a bushel of both, the company argues.

"It is incorrect to simply add all toxics to make the major source determination," said John Habisreitinger, president of Noranda Alumina LLC and a site leader at the Gramercy facility.

While there is significant overlap on the state and federal lists of pollutants, the overlap is not complete. The federal government does not consider mercury or sulfuric acid hazardous air pollutants, though the state considers them toxic ones. Combined, the two pollutants would add 3.1 tons to Noranda's annual air pollution emissions if the new permit were approved, Noranda permits show.  

Also, some pollutants the state defines as toxic, several of which happened to be emitted by Noranda in small quantities, are actually on a supplemental list. By law, pollutants on that list can't trigger stringent emissions controls as other toxic air pollutants can. The state has not yet set safe limits for chemicals on the supplemental list.

Habisreitinger said the plant will stay under the 25-ton-per-year limit.

"We look forward to obtaining our renewed air quality permit and appreciate the advice and support received from LDEQ during this process," he said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.