Four south Louisiana businesses announce layoff plans affecting up to 580 workers _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- The Noranda alumina plant in Gramercy warned that there could be a temporary closure at the facility because of a bauxite tax levy dispute with the Jamaican government.

Noranda Alumina, a manufacturer near Gramercy that learned more than three years ago it was unwittingly releasing mercury into the air potentially for years without a permit, has been granted authority by state environmental regulators to continue emitting as it had in the past.

The five-year air permit renewal initially allows Noranda to emit up 1,500 pounds per year of mercury, as the company requested, but reduces that maximum by 20 percent over time to 1,200 pounds per year.

Even with that reduction in permitted levels, Noranda will have the authority to continue to emit the toxic element largely at nearly the levels it has been releasing it in recent years. The company remains far and away the largest emitter of mercury into the air in Louisiana and among the top five in the nation, federal pollution data show.

As the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was considering the permit earlier this year, environmentalist claimed that mercury from the plant was finding its way into Blind River, where advisories have been issued regarding high levels of mercury found in fish. The environmentalist wanted greater controls on the air emissions.

In issuing the permit, the state did acknowledge mercury emissions from the plant were reaching the Blind River but said air testing showed the emissions did not result in a violation of the state's ambient air standard for mercury nor pose a risk to the public or environment. 

 In the document explaining the decision, DEQ found the increased environmental benefit of cutting the emissions further wasn't enough to justify the economic impact on Noranda. DEQ noted the huge complex along the Mississippi River is a top taxpayer with 439 employees and a $58 million payroll and is also the nation's only refinery making a key precursor material for aluminum production in the nation.

"Notably, Noranda Aluminum is the only smelter grade alumina refinery currently operating in the United States," DEQ officials said in a recent decision for the air permit modification. "Thus, continued operation of this facility is critical to ensure a domestic supply of smelter grade alumina."

Straddling the line between St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes, the Noranda facility extracts alumina from raw, rust-colored bauxite ore shipped up the river from a mine in Jamaica and, once processed, the alumina is then sent elsewhere to make aluminum metal and other products.

The new permit requires Noranda to "investigate, evaluate and determine the feasibility" of further reducing the plant's mercury emissions and requires an annual report on those efforts by Feb. 15 of each year. In interviews, though, DEQ officials also acknowledged the state could not require the plant to use the highest quality air controls because Noranda narrowly falls in a regulatory category that doesn't allow DEQ to do so.

Elliott Vega, DEQ's assistant secretary of environmental services, signed the basis of decision Sept. 8. The decision was not challenged administratively by a mid-October deadline, DEQ officials said. 

Noranda officials welcomed the air permit renewal that they said met all applicable regulatory requirements, yet also added the company is working on ways to lessen the plant's environmental impact.

"The company and our new owners take our environmental responsibilities seriously, and are constantly looking for opportunities to improve our environmental footprint," said John Habisreitinger, Noranda's executive vice president.

With the permit, Noranda has settled the last regulatory requirements after what the company said was a surprise discovery of mercury emissions during upgrades in 2014.

Having already emerged from a 2016 bankruptcy with new ownership, Noranda agreed in May to pay $95,750 to DEQ to settle alleged violations over the unpermitted mercury emissions and other unrelated releases. In the settlement, the new owners denied it committed any violations or is liable for any fines.

While neighbors have complained for years about the red dust from the plant's bauxite ore — the red ore is known to be naturally laced with minute traces of mercury and other elements — Noranda officials discovered during an upgrade in March 2014 that the facility was also releasing elemental mercury into the air from its processing operations.

Until then, the mercury was thought to be bound in the refining process with red mud tailings stored behind large diked areas across acres of land at Noranda's complex.

A heavy metal, mercury has been found to be harmful to people and the environment, even in tiny amounts. Mercury doesn’t break down but accumulates in animals and fish that people eat. Methylmercury accumulations in fish and shellfish, for instance, can impair the neurological growth of fetuses, infants and children.

Initially after their discovery, Noranda officials then running the plant contended in correspondence to DEQ and in media statements that the air emissions were probably so small — less than 25 pound per year — that they would not even need an air permit but wanted authority to emit up to 250 pounds per year.

Noranda later determined through testing that the plant had the potential to emit 1,378 pounds of mercury per year into the air. The company then made after-the-fact reports to federal regulators, showing actual mercury air emissions had ranged between 1,079 pounds and 1,240 pounds for 2013 to 2015. In 2016, Noranda reported a drop to 945 pounds of mercury, but that level remained third in the nation and the highest in Louisiana, federal Toxics Release Inventory data show.

Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said neighbors of the plant have lived for years with emissions from the complex and want to fight them but her group chose not to appeal DEQ's findings.

"We didn't move ahead because we didn't think we could do anything positive about it at this time," Orr said.

Gramercy Mayor Steve Nosacka was among those who complained to DEQ about the red dust from the plant and noted that after a DEQ inspection earlier this year, the company has agreed to put in greater pollution controls on red dust emissions.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries raised concerns about Noranda’s effect on mercury levels in Blind River fish and asked for more analysis before DEQ approved the air permit and also sought reductions in emissions. Wildlife and Fisheries officials declined comment last week on the permit and referred questions to DEQ.

In the basis for decision, DEQ officials wrote it “is not in dispute” that emissions from Noranda have deposited mercury in St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes, but noted that elemental mercury is ubiquitous, arising from a variety of man-made and natural sources and finding its way into waterways and aquatic life from thousands of miles away.

“Clearly, mercury emissions from Noranda Alumina contribute to, but are not solely responsible for, mercury concentrations in sediment samples from Blind River and other local waterways,” DEQ officials wrote in an official response to one commenter on the permit.

DEQ has instead suggested residents with concerns about mercury in Blind River fish simply limit their fish intake from the waterway, as advisories already warn.

In place since 1998, the public health advisory warns pregnant women and children younger than 7 to eat no more than one meal of choupique fish a month from the Blind River – a half-pound of the fish – and warns children older than 7 and adults to eat no more than four meals of any fish species per month.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.