After decades of releasing small amounts of mercury to the environment without a permit, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network wants a St. James Parish facility to come up with a plan to clean it up. LEAN also wants to see plans for how mercury releases will be prevented from the plant, says a notice of intent to sue letter sent to Noranda Alumina and previous owner Kaiser Aluminum Corp.
Marylee Orr, LEAN executive director, said the mercury has gotten into the soil and waterways where it can get into the food chain. Once in water, mercury can transform into methylmercury and accumulate in fish over time. If enough of these fish are eaten by people, health problems can arise, such as neurological damage, especially for children or fetuses.
DEQ officials weren’t available to speak late Tuesday afternoon but have previously said there is no indication a public health danger exists. Last spring, DEQ sent out the mobile air laboratory to the location near the Veterans Memorial Bridge and found a plume of air with elevated mercury levels. However, those readings were still well below — 230 times below — the state’s safe level.
Since self-reporting to DEQ in March 2014, the company has worked with the state agency and following a work plan to determine how much mercury is being released to the air, said John Parker, vice president of communications and investor relations with Noranda.
Parker said it’s too soon to comment on LEAN’s letter, which is required before a lawsuit can be filed.
“We have not been contacted by anyone from this organization, and have not seen any ‘notice of intent to sue,’ ” Parker wrote.
Since 2014, the company has been working under a compliance order with DEQ. The order is in place to better understand how much mercury is being released and where the releases are coming from.
At one point, the company was applying for an air permit that would allow for release of up to 250 pounds of mercury a year to account for the releases, but further study led company officials to believe that the annual pollution will be less than 25 pounds per year. State law considers 25 pounds a year of such releases to be insignificant, and DEQ could decide a permit isn’t needed.
However, LEAN and its attorney say action has been too slow.
LEAN’s attorney, Richard Webster at Public Justice, said the problem has been with DEQ for a year now, and there has been no visible progress. Jones Swanson, with Huddell & Garrison, LLC, will be the Louisiana counsel in the action.
“There’s been no discussion of cleanup,” Webster said.
DEQ officials said the department’s enforcement division is working with the company, but the status of that work wasn’t immediately available Tuesday afternoon.
LEAN’s letter focuses on concerns that wetlands and waterways have been negatively affected by the mercury, perhaps dating back to 1959 when it was owned by Kaiser Aluminum Corp. Although many waterways in the state are listed as impaired by mercury and have fish consumption advisories, Webster said the law doesn’t require proof that a company was the sole cause of damage.
He said the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act requires LEAN to prove the company contributed to the problem. He said LEAN has information showing that mercury levels in the soil get smaller as you move away from the plant, indicating the source is next to the plant.
The hope is that the letter will prompt communication with the company to address the problem and negate the need for a lawsuit, Webster said.
“We use litigation as a last resort,” he said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.