070719 Mosaic gypsum wall movements

CONVENT — As Mosaic Fertilizer struggles to control nearly 1 billion gallons of acidic and radioactive process water brimming inside storage lakes at its St. James Parish complex, it has an emergency fail-safe option that could involve dumping it in the Mississippi River.

A new order from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality tells Mosaic what it should do if it has to dump the acidic water into the Mississippi River in an emergency — though agency officials aren't authorizing, much less encouraging, such a step.

Nearly 980,000 people in New Orleans, Metairie and river parish communities downstream of Convent rely on the Mississippi for drinking water, including St. James Parish residents using public water systems on either side of the river, according to state health officials.

But, with the brunt of hurricane season coming quickly, DEQ officials said the new directive is aimed at preventing an uncontrolled release of untreated acid water during a severe weather event.

"What we don't want to happen, you know, is there's something out in the Gulf (of Mexico) heading our way, and it just starts to overwhelm their system," said Wayne Slater, a DEQ senior environmental scientist.

With an acidity equivalent to lemon juice, the water is also contaminated with heavy metals like iron, cadmium, chromium and lead and with radioactive elements like radium-226 and uranium, Mosaic water testing shows. All of them pose health concerns at high enough concentrations in drinking water, federal health and environmental regulators say.

Even if Mosaic followed all the discharge requirements in the new order — which is intended as a last resort — a release into the Mississippi would still be considered a violation of its permit and subject the company to possible civil penalties, Slater added.

The company already is allowed under its existing water discharge permit to release acid water into the Mississippi under certain (emergency) circumstances but the new DEQ order sets rules for releases into the river in conditions that don’t fall under the permit already.

And DEQ officials downplayed the health risk to those who get their water from the Mississippi River if circumstances lead to some of the process water having to be dumped into the river. An internal storm water canal at Mosaic and eventually the huge flow of the Mississippi would quickly dilute the contaminants to safe levels before it reaches the first water intake pipe six miles away, DEQ says.

"The Mississippi River provides an enormous dilution factor and has great assimilative capacity," an agency statement says.

The new instructions are a last option contained in a broader DEQ directive for Mosaic to pursue other methods to deal with the process water first, like greater groundwater injection.

Separately, the agency is also reviewing Mosaic's request to use 12 high-powered evaporator fans to spray the acid water and its contaminants, untreated, into the air for 11 months starting in mid-July. Mosaic needs a variance to its air permit to use the fans.

Mosaic said it is evaluating the new DEQ order but isn't sure the new injection wells DEQ is proposing are feasible and would prefer to use the evaporator fans. The company says they are the fastest way to cut water levels at its complex.

"We continue to believe that any discharge to the river remains unlikely," said Callie Neslund, spokeswoman for Mosaic.

A new Mosaic analysis provided to DEQ acknowledges that using the evaporator fans would mean people within the vicinity of its storage lakes will breath in air contaminated with radium-226, uranium and possibly thorium.

But the company’s analysis suggests the radioactivity ingested would be at least 60 times less than what federal regulators consider part of a safe annual dosage. The fans would also spray 4.66 tons of hydrofluoric acid into the air, which would be in addition to the more than 8 tons per year already released annually, Mosaic reports say.

Mosaic's modeling shows the worst off-site emissions would fall to the east and south of its facility on vacant farmland or swamps, though the elements have half-lives that mean they will remain radioactive for a few thousand of years and, in some cases, effectively forever, according to known half-lives for the elements.

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic are fighting the fan option. They say Mosaic is underestimating the hydrofluoric acid emissions. They also say that, contrary to the company’s claims, dozens of tons of toxic and hazardous air pollutants per year from the evaporators would end up spraying all around, on both sides of the river in St. James.

"Mosaic’s request to use mechanical spray evaporators to aid in the disposal of toxic process water from its fertilizer manufacturing operation will place these communities and the environment at risk," Lisa Jordan, director of the law clinic, wrote to DEQ.

Mosaic says it used air modeling software and protocols and prevailing wind data approved by regulators.

Greg Langley, DEQ spokesman, said the agency is still deciding whether to allow use of the fans.

"We're looking at everything," he said.

Water, water everywhere

The evaporator fans and the last-resort river discharge would involve releasing into the broader environment hazardous water that regulators have long tried to contain inside Mosaic’s 3,300-acre Uncle Sam complex.

The proposals underscore the problems Mosaic has had in handling those water levels in Louisiana's humid climate, especially after the company's largest storage lake encountered serious stability problems six months ago and had to be drained of hundreds of millions of gallons of the water to avoid catastrophic failure.

The troubled lake and other storage lakes are carved inside a 200-foot-tall waste pile of gypsum, an unusable byproduct of Mosaic's operations. A wall of that gypsum supporting the main lake was shifting at least since the start of 2019, threatening a major wall failure.

After pumping from the main lake, water levels dropped enough to slow the moving wall, though not stop it. That helped minimize the risk of a catastrophic release of the water into surrounding fields and swamps if there were a break, federal and state regulators say.

But, unable to release the water, Mosaic was only able to reduce acid water levels in the main lake by pushing water into other storage lakes, including two newly built ones.

Mosaic now says it needs to remove 300 million gallons of the hazardous process water by Sept. 30 and another 240 million gallons by April 30 and reports show groundwater injection and other methods have only made a dent.

Since late April, Mosaic has cut water levels by 13%, down from 1.14 billion gallons to 990 million gallons through June 30. That's still enough to cover LSU's 1,200-acre main campus in Baton Rouge 2.5-feet deep with the hazardous water, based on information Mosaic reported to DEQ.

Several months ago, environmentalists and residents living near the complex called for the state to shut down Mosaic, but the company says its production process actually use up process water and so idling the plant would only make the water storage problems worse.

Robert Wiygul, an environmental lawyer who is working with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said that six months into what he considers an emergency, there doesn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The company is now asking essentially to waive an environmental law, the existing air permit requirements, to find a way out, he said.

"I mean it's pretty amazing really. I'm not sure people understand what's happening out there," Wiygul said.

The acidic process water is a byproduct of Mosaic's creation of phosphoric acid for agricultural fertilizer. It is recycled between the company's production plant along River Road and the large storage lakes built into the pile of waste gypsum behind the plant.

The storage lakes work as cisterns to collect rain and feed it to Mosaic's water-needy production facilities but also to store returning water for reuse.

Even before the problems with the gypsum pile wall, heavier than expected rain between 2015 and 2017 and again between August and November added hundreds of millions of more gallons of water to the complex's storage ponds, according to a company letter to regulators.

At 960 acres, the waste pile generates lots of rain runoff and much of it ends up mixing with the process water lakes. The company estimated for DEQ earlier this year that 1 inch of rain creates 20 million gallons of new hazardous, process water. That's enough to cover an entire football field with water 47 feet deep.

A path with consequences

Under the new DEQ order, Mosaic would have to notify the agency no more than an hour after the start of a release into the Mississippi, would have to treat the acid water and then would have to test the water continuously after treatment.

Mosaic would not have to cleanse the water fully but would be subject to less-restrictive Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits that allow radioactivity from the element radium-226 that is 11 times higher, respectively, than the federal drinking water standard.

DEQ says the NRC limits are protective and take into account the average size and weight of a human body, annual water ingestion and "safe cumulative annual radiological dose rates."

Langley, the DEQ spokesman, said the agency has not yet performed the calculations to determine how much acid water can be discharged safely into the river but said they will be done if and when Mosaic plans to exercise that option.

Over the past six months, actual testing of the process water shows the concentrations of uranium have been nearly six times lower than the safe drinking water standard, Mosaic reports say. On the other hand, the radioactivity of radium-226, a known carcinogen, in the process water has been found to be nearly two times higher than the drinking water standard but still just 20 percent of the NRC discharge limit.

Courtney Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, which supplies water for nearly 344,000 people in the city, said the city plants can test for uranium and radium-226 and are designed to treat uranium already in the river.

She didn't say if the plant could also treat radium-226, which is normally found in low concentrations in the Mississippi.

St. James Parish officials said DEQ officials informed them that the order is essentially a "shot over the bow" aimed at Mosaic. If the company did start discharges, the parish would be contacted immediately and health officials would start water testing, the officials said.

Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state Department of Health, said his agency already monitors drinking water for radium-226 and other radionuclides and has been checking water systems in St. James quarterly in response to the Mosaic situation.

Tests show the drinking water is below safety levels.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.