121420 BASF plant Zachary

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has proposed that German chemical manufacturer BASF pay an $83,000 fine to settle a series of alleged violations at its now shuttered Zachary complex.

The violations date back to 2011 and include incidents from when the facility was under different ownership.

The now demolished specialty chemicals complex has been closed since April 2019 and the settlement is an attempt to wrap up affairs. A long-running batte between BASF and one of the former owners, Ferro Corporation, however, continues. That fight centers around the level of cleanup of groundwater contamination still needed under the site off U.S. 61. DEQ officials have ordered more analysis of the groundwater contamination, which includes the likely human carcinogen dioxane.

The plant first started operations in the early 1960s when it was run by Grant Chemical. It later became part of Ferro. Over the years, it produced a variety of chemicals, including lithium ion battery electrolytes and, since 1971, dioxane.

Ferro sold the complex in 2008 to Novolyte Technologies, which, in turn, was bought by BASF in 2012.

The alleged violations, which occurred as recently as earlier this year, include wastewater discharges that exceeded water quality standards and the storage of hazardous, benzene-emitting waste carbon filters in open-air containers. Benzene is a human carcinogen.

Other problems include paperwork violations related to the labeling hazardous waste on written manifests and barrels.

The proposed settlement, under which BASF is admitting no wrongdoing, would resolve four notices of potential violation issued over the past six years, as well as a more recent warning letter. The proposed settlement, published last month, remains in a 45-day public comment period.

BASF maintains that the company has addressed environmental concerns raised by DEQ and that it responded in a timely fashion at the time of the violation notices were issued.

"The company chose to move forward with resolving any penalties sought because the site has ceased operation," Blythe Bellows Lamonica, a BASF spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Craig Easley, a DEQ senior scientist in hazardous waste, said the violations associated with the benzene-imbedded carbon filters are due to then-owners of the plant, Novolyte Technologies, failing to pinpoint whether the spent filters met the threshold for hazardous waste.

"Of course, that led to a list of violations because they didn't get it right at the start. They resulted in mismanagement of hazardous waste," Easley said.

The waste carbon was held in nylon "super sacks" open to the elements for months, allowing it to spill onto the bare earth and later mixed with sludge from the plant's wastewater treatment facility for later shipment to an industrial landfill, a notice of violation alleges.

DEQ inspectors found internal documents from the mid-1990s from the prior owner, Ferro Corp., that showed benzene concentrations in the carbon that merited classifying it as hazardous waste. Subsequent testing by DEQ in 2011 also confirmed those internal documents, the violation notice says.

Easley said the carbon narrowly surpassed the threshold to be classified as hazardous waste. He said the problems were corrected at that time. 

Violations under BASF's watch included holding hazardous waste in temporary storage containers on its site well past the required 90-day window before the waste was shipped off. Those incidents occurred between 2017 and early 2019. BASF addressed the matter by ensuring the waste in the containers was removed every week.

Those same storage containers have been used since late 2019 to temporarily hold the contaminated groundwater that is pumped as part of Ferro's ongoing remediation efforts, DEQ documents show.

Though BASF owns the Zachary property, Ferro retained the responsibility for cleaning up the groundwater contamination. That was part of a mid-1990s plan that DEQ approved.

According to a 2019 analysis from BASF, contamination in the shallow groundwater is spreading deeper into the earth and wider out horizontally from the original contamination sites, despite more than 25 years of Ferro's remediation efforts.

BASF says Ferro needs to do more. In regulatory papers, Ferro says it is conducting additional testing. 

In addition to dioxane, there are other contaminants under the old plant site including chlorotoluene and a host of other chemicals in more limited amounts, one of them mercury, according to industry reports to DEQ going back at least to the early 1990s.

Greg Langley, DEQ spokesman, said the agency has told both companies it wants more testing to see the extent of the contamination underground.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.