An Australian company hoping to bring a battery components factory to a port in southern Tangipahoa Parish is running into opposition from residents concerned the plant could harm the nearby swampy waterway used for fishing and recreation.
Syrah Resources is in the permitting phase for a facility that would process graphite from Mozambique into a component for lithium ion batteries, now in high demand for electric cars. The company is touting the plant as a way for Louisiana to position itself as a player in the growing electric car industry.
Similar plants exist in China, but this would be the first in the United States, said Paul Jahn, chief operations officer for battery anode materials at Syrah Tehnologies, the company's battery subsidiary.
The factory would be located in an existing warehouse at Port Manchac, the port and industrial complex along North Pass, a narrow waterway connecting Lake Maurepa and Lake Pontchartrain.
The company hopes to start production in the spring of 2018.
At the plant, flake graphite would be milled into a spherical shape and purified with water and acids. The final product would be shipped to battery manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, Jahn said.
At full capacity, the plant would produce about 10,000 metric tons of spherical graphite each year, he said.
Syrah has applied to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for air and water permits. The company proposes to release annually about 38 tons of particulate matter, .93 tons of hydrochloric acid, .52 tons of hydrogen fluoride and .004 tons of formaldehyde into the air, according to permit documents. The plant also proposes to pump 41,000 gallons of water used in the manufacturing process into North Pass on a daily basis.
Opposition to the plant from residents of southern Tangipahoa and Livingston parishes emerged following an article in the weekly newspaper, the Independence Times. The story provided early details about the project discussed in a meeting of the South Tangipahoa Parish Port Commission, which oversees Port Manchac.
John Hoover, a commercial fisherman from Manchac, posted a photo of the article on his Facebook page, and it was shared widely.
"Nobody knew this was even coming in our area," he said in an interview this week. "Once the public picked up on what was fixing to go down, we have so much passion for Manchac, everybody was scared of something like this."
Hoover connected with Kim Coates, a local business salesperson, and they started a Facebook page called the Save Manchac Coalition. This group now has 900 members, including many who packed the Ponchatoula City Hall on Tuesday and spoke up about their opposition at the port commission meeting. Representatives from Syrah tried to answer their questions.
The port commission is authorized to decide whether to issue a final lease to the company.
Coates, president of the new Save Manchac group, said in an interview that she is concerned about how the new factory might affect the ecosystem in North Pass. She said the waterway is home to fish, frogs and crabs. She fears salty outputs from the factory could affect the wildlife there.
While recognizing that 41,000 gallons a day is relatively little to release, she noted the pollutants could add up over time.
"Over four years — the term of this lease — it can be very damaging to the water," she said.
In addition, she said that Syrah will be storing graphite and tanks of acidic chemicals, which could be destructive if they spill during a flood.
Coates and her husband own a camp along the pass, and she said the plant also threatens the swimming, boating and other recreational opportunities of the area.
She has submitted a letter to DEQ requesting public comment periods and public hearings on both of the company's permit applications.
Hoover, who is vice president of the group, said he is concerned the pollution from plant could disturb the grassy blue crab habitats along the sides of North Pass.
"This was just such a high-risk area that it didn't make any sense to take a gamble on something like that," he said.
Graphite mining and processing in China has come under scrutiny in recent years, including by a 2016 investigative report by The Washington Post that described a shimmering, near-constant sparkling of graphite, damaged crops and polluted water in areas where graphite manufacturing is done.
Jahn, the company representative, said the site in Manchac was chosen for the logistics. The port is accessible by train, truck and barge. In addition, Tangipahoa Parish has a good supply of skilled operators, he said. Jahn said similar facilities in China employ as many as 100 people.
In an interview, he detailed steps the company is taking to minimize the air and water pollutants. To reduce the particle matter, he said the factory will use filters, as well as a vacuum-like dust collection system. As the fine particles are a valuable byproduct, the company has a financial interest in trapping them, he said.
With regards to the water disposal, he said the acidic fluids will be neutralized before they are released into North Pass. He said the main materials left in the water are sodium, calcium and chloride.
Addressing the residents' concern of flood risk, he said the company plans to keep storage vessels and key equipment one foot above the base flood elevation. In case of an approaching storm, the company plans to use up or move out raw materials sitting on site.
While he conceded that some graphite operations in China are dirty, he said this one would be comparably clean.
"We are completely committed to environmental sustainability and complying with the guidelines of local jurisdictions," he said.
Pat Dufresne, executive director of the Southern Tangipahoa Parish Port Commission, which oversees Port Manchac, said the port has granted an initial lease to the company, which allows it to apply for permits. However, a final lease on the existing warehouse will depend on the results of DEQ's permit process and community input.
He said the port already houses one manufacturing operation, a chemical blending plant that prepares cleaning solutions.
Dufresne sees the graphite factory — brought to him as potential tenant by Louisiana Economic Development — as an opportunity for the port to grow in terms of the number of jobs and vocational training opportunities. He added that the port does not currently have a natural gas line, and a growing manufacturer may in the future be willing to install one.
The potential environmental impacts from the proposed battery facility draws mixed reaction from researchers.
Kevin Armbrust, chairman of the department of environmental sciences at LSU, said after briefly reviewing the permit applications that the facility does not raise major concerns, so long as the water is appropriately treated. He added that company plans to emit a relatively small volume of water daily.
But Wilma Subra, a chemist who provides technical assistance to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a group Coates contacted about the factory, does think the facility poses a serious risk to the ecosystem and residents.
She said the particles being released could cause respiratory problems, including asthma, for nearby residents. She added that the discharged water could release some components that might accumulate over time in the organisms, and subsequently in the fish, that live in North Pass.
"This could be a very dusty and dirty processing facility," she said. "And the dirtiness is accompanied by the toxicity of the particles."
Kristi Trail, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said in a statement that the group is still reviewing the proposal with regards to its potential environmental impacts, economic benefits and record of the company.
“We are still in the research and data gathering phase and we are looking forward to meeting with Syrah to further discuss these issues and concerns," she said.
The South Tangipahoa Parish Port Commission will meet again on Jan. 9 at Ponchatoula City Hall for further discussion of the proposed plant.
Editor' note: This story was changed on Dec. 22, 2017, to reflect that Wilma Subra is the chemist who provides technical assistance to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.