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A proposed graphite processing factory to make electric car batteries in southern Tangipahoa Parish near the Port Manchac facility

ADVOCATE PHOTO BY DAVID NORMAND

PONCHATOULA — A coalition of environmentalists, fishermen and Manchac residents carried the day Tuesday when the governing body of Port Manchac voted against a battery component manufacturer that wanted to set up shop along North Pass.

Citing environmental concerns and public outcry, the South Tangipahoa Parish Port Commission unanimously approved a resolution that will prevent Syrah Resources from refining graphite at the port, which is situated on a swampy waterway connecting Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain.

The resolution terminates a lease agreement that could have allowed the Australian company to use a warehouse at the port to mill graphite from Mozambique into a component for lithium ion batteries. The company said it would have been the first such operation outside of China. Permits with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality were still pending.

The proposal drew opposition from people who feared graphite particles released into the air and wastewater discharged into the pass would affect fishing and recreational opportunities. The Manchac area includes many vacation camps and some commercial fisherman use it to fish and trap blue crabs.

The resolution says the decision to reject the proposal is based on the "potential adverse impact to the environment, diminishing the usefulness of the leased premises and the public and private nuisance created by the anticipated operation of the project."

The commissioners adopted it with minimal discussion. In closing the meeting, commission Chairman Donald Boheim thanked the public for its input on the project and welcomed people to the commission's monthly meetings.

"And I want to assure everyone that none of the commissioners would ever do anything to harm the environment at Manchac," he said.

Commissioner Daryl Ferrara said after the meeting that the lease was worth $15,000 a month for four years. That would have represented a 20 percent increase in revenue for the port, which operated at a $100,000 loss in 2017, according to figures provided at the meeting.

Ferrara said the commission took into consideration the public's input and the information experts offered about the potential impacts of the plant. He said that, going forward, he wants to look at environmentally friendly options that could still create jobs.

Pat Dufresne, the port commission's executive director, had said the graphite facility would produce more than 25 jobs. Dufresne said he plans to focus on the site's potential as a cargo transfer facility, due to its access to rail, water and interstate.

Opposition to the proposed battery component factory began in early December, when a local newspaper described the company's plans as they were presented to the commission. A local crab fisherman posted that article on his Facebook page, and soon, the Save Manchac Coalition was formed. The group turned up en masse at a port commission hearing last month and requested public hearings on an air quality permit application the company filed with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

"On behalf of our coalition, we would like to thank you for listening, for hearing our concerns and for taking the action that you did," Kim Coates, president of the Save Manchac Coalition told the commissioners after the decision was announced.

She said after the meeting that she plans to turn the coalition into a nonprofit that would serve as a watchdog over the Manchac area, which she believes is ripe for more ecotourism.

"We're going to keep an eye on things now," Coates said.

The company, meanwhile, is already scouting other locations, according to Paul Jahn, chief operations officer for battery anode materials at Syrah Tehnologies, the company's battery subsidiary.

Jahn said after the meeting that he is disappointed by the commission's reversal but that the company has been approached by other sites since the contentious December meeting.

"We are quite confident that despite the decision today, we will be successful in finding a home for the project in the state of Louisiana," Jahn said.

He said Louisiana is still a desirable location because of the logistics and higher quality workers.

Syrah had planned to build an 11,200-ton-per-year facility at Port Manchac. The facility would have milled flake graphite into a spherical shape and purified it with water and acids. The company projected the facility would release annually about 38 tons of particulate matter, 0.93 tons of hydrochloric acid, 0.52 tons of hydrogen fluoride and 0.004 tons of formaldehyde into the air, according to permit documents. The plant also proposed to pump 41,000 gallons of water used in the manufacturing process into North Pass on a daily basis.

Opponents of the project said the released particles and liquids could have disturbed the ecosystem at North Pass that is home to fish, frogs and crabs and frequently used for swimming and fishing. There also was concern that a flood at the manufacturing facility could dump stored chemicals into the pass and that the released particles could cause respiratory problems.

In response to the environmental concerns raised, Jahn said the company planned to follow all DEQ regulations. He also has said the company would use a series of filters and neutralizers to clean the air and wastewater before it is released and had contingency plans in case of a natural disaster.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.