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PORT ALLEN — A variance request from an environmental services firm hoping to open a $50 million industrial waste reclamation plant in Port Allen was met with overwhelming disapproval from residents who attended a public hearing Thursday night, most of whom said they are tired of seeing the industrial footprint in West Baton Rouge Parish continue to encroach on residential development. 

Those residents, and some from a few surrounding parishes, also took the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to task for not providing a venue big enough to hold the hundreds of people who showed up for the public hearing on Thermaldyne's request for a feedstock variance for operations at its Port Allen facility, which is scheduled to open later this year. 

"I'm disappointed we have people standing outside in the hallway," state Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, told LDEQ officials during the meeting. "The purpose of the hearing is to hear from the people, and we didn't give them the adequate opportunity to be heard. Some folks left because they couldn't get inside." 

But those who stayed urged LDEQ to reject the variance request; among their opposition were concerns of cancer-causing emissions from the facility, increased traffic woes and frustrations about a lack of accountability from the state's environmental agency.  

“We already live in the shadows of large chemical plants and their permits to pollute continue," said Port Allen resident David Leblanc. “Stop this industrial takeover of our homeland.”

Thermaldyne's Port Allen facility, which is being built on a 27-acre plot along North Line Road, would accept things like the tank bottoms from refineries and treat it through a process called "vacuum-assisted thermal disposition" to extract reusable oil products such as petroleum hydrocarbon based-fuels.

The new facility is supposed to bring 75 new jobs to Port Allen with an average salary of $80,000 a year.

According to its permit application, the reclamation plant is in an area zoned industrial-moderate, consistent with its operation, and there is no residential housing adjacent to the site.

The feedstock variance would allow certain recycled materials to be excluded from the definition of solid waste when certain criteria are met.

Officials with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network have said previously the variance would allow the company to skirt stringent hazard waste protocols, claiming Thermaldyne could release toxic and carcinogenic materials like benzene, chromium, lead and mercury into the air through its extraction process without having to install expensive and more effective pollution controls that are normally required of facilities treating such materials.

Richard Cates, the company's president, said the facility would have emissions control procedures in place, like vacuum-sealed equipment, to prevent any serious health risk to the public.

“Our feedstock is not a hazardous waste, but it does contain hazardous characteristics," Cates told the crowd. "“The purpose for the variances like this is to promote recycling. We have the right recipe of equipment specific to recycling this type of product.”

Several parish officials and business leaders threw their support behind Thermaldyne's migration into the parish. Many of them said they had toured parts of the facility already built and feel confident in the company's promises of environmental safety. 

But other public officials joined in the chorus of opposition to the request, which if not granted could hinder  Thermaldyne from opening the facility. 

Ted Denstel, a resident who lives within 1.5 miles of the proposed facility, asked LDEQ to reject the variance request and instead force Thermaldyne to abide by the federal and state regulations already in place regarding the processing and handling of hazardous waste materials.

"Let's trust them for now, but require them to be under the full regulations of hazardous waste disposal, then in a few years hold another public hearing and then consider giving them their variance," Denstel said. 

If granted, the feedstock variance would be effective for at least 10 years. Top officials at Thermaldyne have said getting the variance is a key component in opening the facility. 


Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.