Two environmental groups have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to block a newly issued air operating permit for the first phase of Yuhuang Chemical’s proposed $1.85 billion methanol complex in St. James Parish.
In a direct petition to the EPA, the Sierra Club and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network claim the state Department of Environmental Quality wrongly concluded the complex’s air emissions were low enough that Yuhuang could avoid a separate permitting process known as prevention of significant deterioration. That DEQ finding helped clear the way for the air permit, approved May 5.
The PSD process, among other things, requires more-intensive air modeling to assess regional impact and the use of the stiffest pollution controls.
LEAN and the Sierra Club’s central criticism is that the air permit does not impose enforceable, practical limits on air emissions and vastly undercuts the maximum potential emissions that the future chemical facility could release into the air.
Emissions from the plant include smog-producing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, and toxic air pollutants ammonia, methanol and hexane.
Corinne Van Dalen, attorney for the two groups and an instructor for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, wrote to EPA that the air permit is illegal because of its emissions and PSD shortcomings.
LEAN and the Sierra Club’s petition comes as St. James school officials already have agreed to sell St. James High School to Yuhuang, a Chinese company making its first foray into the United States with a troubled track record in its homeland. The school is next to the future plant site.
In connection with that deal, St. James voters also overwhelmingly decided May 2 to support a $56 million bond issue that will, in part, fund a new replacement high school farther from the Mississippi River and Yuhuang.
In support of the claims about the permit, the environmental groups claim they are unable to verify Yuhuang’s unusually low emissions figures because they couldn’t obtain a spreadsheet from DEQ that the permit application cites as a source.
The document contains underlying technical data that sheds light on how Yuhuang expects to achieve emissions low enough to avoid thresholds that would make it a “major source” and trigger the PSD requirements, Van Dalen claims. EPA was after the spreadsheet as well.
DEQ and Yuhuang officials said DEQ was not supplied the spreadsheet either, because it contains proprietary business information from one of Yuhuang’s technical suppliers, Air Liquide.
“So, you know, it’s just blind faith,” Van Dalen said.
DEQ officials say the plant has monitoring and pollution controls above what is required and disputed Van Dalen’s charge. They contend the underlying data were not legally required nor even needed to review the plant’s permit but were certified as true by a responsible company official and a professional engineer.
Bryan Johnston, senior environmental scientist for DEQ’s Air Permits Division, added that to suggest the numbers may have been adjusted “just so the plant is minor source under PSD” is a stretch.
“That’s kind of reaching out there,” he said.
He added Yuhuang would face substantial consequences, including a retroactive PSD review, penalties and additional pollution controls, if it did adjust the emissions numbers.
The environmental groups’ petition is a direct citizen petition to the EPA allowed under the Clean Air Act when EPA does not initially block a state agency air permit. The petition is not a lawsuit. DEQ officials said it will not stop construction of the Yuhuang complex.
The facility is earmarked for 1,100 acres of agricultural land along the west bank of the Mississippi River. Work is expected to start in late summer or early fall.
Charles Goebel, Yuhuang plant manager, said the company believes the permit will hold up to further review.
“We remain confident in that permit that we worked with LDEQ on and that LDEQ issued for us. We believe it’s a technically sound permit,” Goebel said. “We will work hand and glove with LDEQ to defend that permit and make sure that it stands.”
Jennah Durant, EPA Region 6 spokeswoman, said the appeal is reviewed by EPA’s headquarters staff in Washington, D.C., with input from Region 6 in Dallas.
“Because EPA’s comments on the permit are a part of that process, we can’t discuss them further at this time,” Durant wrote in an email.
At the heart of LEAN and the Sierra Club’s wish to verify Yuhuang’s emissions calculations is the future plant’s high-efficiency methanol production process. Yuhuang has licensed it from Air Liquide.
Yuhuang claims the Air Liquide process “results in inherently lower carbon consumption and lower emissions.”
Other companies are building methanol plants in the River Parishes to take advantage of low natural gas prices, an extensive pipeline network and other factors. Natural gas is a key consideration for these plants because it is both fuel source and feedstock. DEQ has required some of those plants to pursue the PSD process.
South Louisiana Methanol is proposing a $1.3 billion complex in St. James a few miles upriver of the Yuhuang plant. At 5,150 metric tons per day, the South Louisiana Methanol plant would have similar production as the Yuhuang complex would, which is expected to make 5,000 tons a day.
But South Louisiana Methanol projected nitrogen oxide emissions far higher than Yuhuang’s and crossed the PSD threshold. The company had to seek and obtain the added permit.
Differences like that one and other emissions rates result from a variety of factors, such as how much carbon monoxide is emitted when natural gas is combusted in a boiler. The factors have a multiplying effect on the calculated emissions.
LEAN and the Sierra Club pointed out to EPA that Yuhuang’s factors are, in some cases, several times smaller than standard factors EPA has developed, but nowhere in Yuhuang’s permit request does Air Liquide even offer a guarantee of the lower emissions claims.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.