For nearly six years, the Nucor Steel iron plant in St. James Parish released caustic sulfuric acid mist and highly flammable, rotten egg-smelling hydrogen sulfide into the air — and neither the plant nor regulators knew about it, documents show.

It wasn't until mid-2019 when a test revealed the plant was among the 15 largest emitters of hydrogen sulfide in Louisiana — even though the plant didn't have a permit to discharge the gas. 

The company faults a design flaw in the eight-year-old plant and higher than expected sulfur content in the ore it was processing. 

Four months after the test, the North Carolina-based company reported the results to the state Department of Environmental Quality. Less than three months after that, the regulators revised the plant's permit to allow the gasses to be released at significantly reduced levels that won't trigger tougher pollution controls.

Sanctions against the company are still pending.

Environmental groups and some local residents say the episode highlights the kind of weak scrutiny DEQ has placed on Nucor since the facility opened in 2013 amid great fanfare from the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Those advocates are also criticizing a proposed $89,760 settlement between DEQ and Nucor to address other violations from 2014 to 2018, saying it's far too small. Put together, they say it all shows a pattern of Nucor admitting wrongdoing without facing any consequences from the state and later seeing its permits adjusted to make some of its former violations legal. 

"Allowing such lax compliance with regulations is extremely dangerous for both Nucor's current neighbors and the future of St. James Parish," lawyers with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic wrote.

DEQ took a similar tack with Noranda Alumina after the company discovered in 2014 that its Gramercy plant had been unintentionally releasing toxic mercury into the air. DEQ ended up permitting the level of reported emissions at the St. James plant, finding they didn't pose a risk to the public, and fined Noranda $95,750.

At the time, the air permit ended up authorizing Noranda to be Louisiana's top air emitter of mercury near the Blind River — where fish mercury advisories have been in place for years — even as state and federal authorities were pushing Louisiana's coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions.

For Nucor's settlement, the environmental groups want a far bigger fine that would act as a better deterrent, requirements that Nucor improve its environmental safeguards, better monitoring near the plant to detect gases and notification of residents about plant upsets.

Nucor is currently seeking an $120 million expansion, but the company's own permit application shows the addition also would double or nearly double fine particulate and some smog-producing air pollution that can harm the respiratory system.

“The only reason that the state and Nucor want this settlement is so that Nucor can expand,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “But as the company’s own records show, it can’t even handle its current operations. Only an agency like our sorry DEQ — polluters paradise — would offer such a pathetic settlement to a notorious polluter endangering people's lives."

DEQ and Nucor officials didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the settlement and opposition from the Tulane clinic, which is representing residents who live next door to Nucor in Romeville.

Jindal administration officials had hoped Nucor would build a five-phase, $3.4 billion complex offering 1,250 jobs. A $1 billion blast furnace would have been the centerpiece.

Among many state and local tax breaks, the state lured Nucor with an unusual, 30-year property tax exemption on 4,000 acres that still rankles local officials. Nucor ended up only building one of the phases, a direct reduced iron complex, on the agricultural land between River Road and La. 3125.

The $750 million facility, the largest of its kind in the world, purifies iron ore of oxide contaminants so the metal can be made into steel elsewhere in Nucor's supply chain. The plant, which employs 150 people, relies heavily on Louisiana's cheap natural gas supplies.

Now Nucor is talking about a new pelletizer plant that will reuse leftover iron oxide bits, coke dust and other material to make 400,000 tons per year of additional iron oxide pellets that can be reprocessed in the DRI plant, permit records say.

A high emitter — and nobody knew it

Hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid mist are potentially harmful to workers and the surrounding public. In the highest concentrations, they can lead to severe injury and death, private and federal reports show.

There's no indication in the state's reports than anyone outside the plant was harmed by the emissions.

Hydrogen sulfide is colorless gas that is heavier than air and can hug the ground and collect under raised homes and other low-lying, poorly ventilated areas until it poses an explosive risk. Chemical and energy industry workers are trained to take precautions against it.

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Nucor released an estimated 167.3 tons of hydrogen sulfide over the six years in question, company estimates say. Based on federal reporting data, those years of emissions were in the top 15 among all complexes in Louisiana, with three years in the top 10.

In the biggest year, in 2016, Nucor had the fifth highest hydrogen sulfide emissions statewide, federal Toxics Release Inventory data show. The company released an estimated 42.74 tons that year.

Earlier estimates that Nucor had submitted to DEQ put combined emissions over the six years nearly 15% higher than the current estimates and had pushed the company even higher up statewide rankings. In late June, Nucor revised down its figures.

The release of unpermitted sulfuric acid mist, while sizeable and reaching nearly 8 tons in 2018, ranks far lower among other Louisiana facilities.  

Under the revised permit levels, Nucor can't emit more than 9.77 tons per year of hydrogen sulfide. Annual sulfuric acid mist emissions can't be more than 4.7 tons.

Nucor says it has fixed the design flaw. Hydrogen sulfide gas had been erroneously routed past a scrubber designed to keep it from being released.

The company also says it is making other changes to cut down on other sulfur emissions and bring them lower than the current permit limits.

How big should fines be? 

Environmentalists have frequently criticized DEQ for other settlements with longstanding and unresolved violations by multi-billion dollar manufacturers seeking new permits to expand their operations.

In early December, DEQ approved two settlements with the Plaquemine-based Shintech worth a combined $150,000, which closed out dozens of violations dating back to 2008. The agreement came just weeks before the company announced a $1.3 billion expansion of its operations in Iberville Parish.

Under state law, DEQ generally has authority to issue fines of up to $32,500 per day per violation, depending on the year, but the agency rarely uses the full extent of that fining power. Agency officials have said they prefer to bring companies into compliance.

At the same time, DEQ also has been under fire for moving too slowly in bringing industrial violations to a close.

In January, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor faulted DEQ for allowing years of violations to hang around unresolved. The audit found the average time to end them doubled from 10 to 20 months between 2015 and 2019.

Some violations took as long as nine years to resolve, auditors found.

Since the end of 2018, however, the pace of settlements has picked up markedly. Settlements averaged 72.4 per year between 2011 and 2018 but hit 104 in 2019 and 120 in 2020, an Advocate analysis of DEQ data shows.

The average pace of settlements in 2019 and 2020 represents a nearly 55% increase over the average pace from the prior eight years.

A little more than halfway through 2021, DEQ has proposed or reached 83 settlements statewide, including the one with Nucor, agency data show.

Why was the air monitor turned off?

In the pending settlement, DEQ found Nucor committed a variety of paperwork failures and a number of other elevated emissions releases for fine particulates, tiny particles that cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems and for smog-producing nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. The company acknowledged many of these failures were preventable, DEQ says.

Also, for a year and a half in 2017 and 2018, the company failed to conduct required ambient air monitoring for fine particulates from the iron oxide ore and other dusty materials.

Company officials have told DEQ they thought the responsibility for air monitoring had ended and turned the monitor off sometime before Jan. 1, 2017. That led to 77 instances of reporting failures.

In fact, DEQ says, the ongoing requirement, which had been in place since the plant opened in late 2013, hadn't ended.  But after inspectors found the failures, Nucor asked DEQ for and received a permit change in mid-2018 that removed the monitoring requirement in exchange for new dust controls, agency enforcement records show.

Under the proposed settlement, Nucor would admit no fault over that or any other alleged violations.

"Soot and chemicals from Nucor are landing on my property, and the pollution is wearing down my health. I live on a fixed income, so I have no choice but to clean up Nucor’s mess myself. Why isn’t Nucor held accountable to repair its own mess? I am so sick and tired and fed up,” Romeville resident Myrtle Felton said in a joint statement with the Bucket Brigade.

The Times-Picayune/The Advocate reporter Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.

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