BURNSIDE — Two months ago, officials with LAlumina LLC, a private startup that hoped to bring the old Ormet alumina complex to profitability, announced continued economic challenges would force them to lay off more than 300 employees by mid-August.

Former acting plant manager Peter Odgers now says the process is nearly completed. His last day was Aug. 28, and only a skeleton crew remains to maintain the 2,500-acre complex's mine waste ponds, known as red mud lakes or red mud ponds.

Company officials have said they are seeking a possible buyer for the facility, which has been in Ascension Parish since the 1950s and has one of the largest, deep water terminals on the lower Mississippi River.

Local economic development and state regulators say they haven't heard anything from the company recently. Gabriel Henn, a top company official to whom Odgers has referred other questions, hasn't returned repeated calls for comment for a month, including again on Tuesday.

But the future of the red mud lakes that are inextricably tied to the alumina plant's fortunes also remains an open question.

They have been the source of dust complaints for years from nearby residents and even had a leak in recent years. The ponds are surrounded on one side by the Pelican Crossing neighborhood and are across La. 44 from the Pelican Point golf course community. 

State regulatory records show that one of two options are on the table: to implement a long-term closure plan that is woefully underfunded or to reopen and continue to dump red mud waste.

The red mud lakes cover nearly 500 acres between La. 22 and the Panama Canal south of Gonzales and are hemmed in by levees between 18 and 22 feet high to hold back decades worth of red mud, permit records show.

A byproduct of the alumina production process, this red mud is what is left over after rust-colored bauxite ore is shipped from South America, Australia and Africa and extracted of its alumina. 

More than two pounds of the waste are created for every pound of alumina extracted. Alumina is a precursor of aluminum and, for years, the Burnside plant had supplied Ormet's long-since shuttered operations in Hannibal, Ohio.

Due to the production process, natural elements in the ground tend to be slightly concentrated in the waste, so it is laced with a variety of heavy metals and minutely radioactive elements that have made it hard to recycle, industry experts say. According to state regulators, nothing green will ever grow in the red mud in Burnside.

Three months after LAlumina had told state officials it was planning layoffs, the company filed, in late June, to renew its 10-year solid waste permit to continue dumping the red mud waste.

If granted, the renewal would allow the company or whoever buys the operation to continue piling up the dusty material, so it reaches well above the ponds' containment levees at some point more than two decades away, permit records show.

The permit remains pending, state Department of Environmental Quality officials said, but the potential of having more red mud stacked high and exposed to the wind has some of the lakes' neighbors concerned. 

Fairly new to the Pelican Crossing neighborhood, Chandler Hayes has noticed dusty haze from the LAlumina waste ponds only a few times, but, when the wind kicks up enough, the fine red material is all around her Ascension Parish subdivision and on her neighbors' homes, she said.

Hayes, who is in her mid-20s, has lived with her husband, Michael, in a new phase of the Pelican Crossing neighborhood for about nine months. Their street dead ends at one of the red mud lake levees.

"I've noticed it a few times, but it was almost like a haze, less than smog but kind of close to it. Kind of like if you drove through a construction site and it kicks up dust," Hayes said.

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Other residents in the newer phases of Pelican Crossing along the containment levee's edge also complained about red dust swirling from the pile and sticking to the exterior of their new homes.

Jonathan and Juliette Roussel, who are in their 30s, sat on the back porch recently with a late afternoon view of a lake containment levee and a neighborhood detention pond. They have noticed the sprinklers designed to keep the dust down haven't been as active since LAlumina announced it was laying off workers.

Jonathan Roussel said he has had to clean red dust off his house three times since he bought it more than a year ago. He said would be opposed to continued operation because the company hasn't contained the red dust.

"I would have never even bought into the subdivision … but when we picked this lot, I didn't realize we were that close to it," Roussel said.

Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmental adviser for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, agreed with some industry experts who suggested the major long-term risk from the dust isn't its chemical constituents but the small particles that can lodge in people's respiratory systems.

In late June, LAlumina reached a $100,000 settlement with DEQ to deal with a series of complaints over the lakes and other operations going back to 2016 when the complex was run by the former owners, Almatis.

The complaints included red dust emissions from the lakes and the failure to employ dust-suppression sprinklers, as well as a red mud spill into a ditch, and improper water discharge. 

The red dust waste is dumped into the pond as a slurry that has the consistency of a paste. The waste is expected to dry out over time so more red mud can be stacked on top of the dried mud, layer upon layer, eventually into large conical piles that will rise above the levee top.

Permit records don't indicate exactly how high the company wants to stack the waste above the levee top, but engineering done in the late 1990s looked at the potential of up to 43 feet high, DEQ records show.

Will Mayes, a researcher and environmental science lecturer at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom who has studied the effects of a catastrophic red mud spill in Hungary in 2010, said control technologies like sprinkler systems and post-closure capping are important to keep any environmental risks from the waste piles low.

"So even after potential plant closure, it would be anticipated that there would be ongoing (red mud control) management/inspection and maintenance for a number of years," he said. "Such post-closure plans (and associated funding) are usually demanded by regulatory authorities but the situation varies from one jurisdiction to another."

DEQ requires this type of long-term planning and financing, and LALumina had plans to cap the waste with dirt so it could be covered with grass and then be monitored for 30 years.

But LAlumina and its predecessors have funded less than 10% of the estimated $6.3 million bill for that plan, state regulators said.

Based on financial records filed with DEQ, neither LAlumina, which took over in 2019, nor Almatis, the prior owner that took over from original owner Ormet several years ago, have made required payments of $201,000 annually into a trust for the closure plan in nearly three years.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.