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A judge has paused — at least for the time being — construction of an industrial recycling facility in Port Allen where residents have raised concerns about toxic chemicals.

The company Thermaldyne provided a "deficiency" of information when it applied for a permit with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality last year, 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant recently ruled. He ordered Thermaldyne to provide more information about pollutants at the facility, which is designed to receive material like tank bottoms from oil refineries.

Environmentalists cheered what they characterized as a correction to an irresponsible decision by state authorities to let the plant operate, claiming the facility would poison humans and wildlife. Thermaldyne officials did not return calls seeking comment Thursday but have vigorously defended their role as a site that provides safe recycling for otherwise dangerous materials. Because the matter is still tied up in court, state regulators cannot comment on the situation, DEQ Press Secretary Greg Langley said Thursday.

Based on what scientists know about similar facilities, the Port Allen plant could risk emitting dangerous amounts of dioxanes, benzenes and other chemicals into the air, plus arsenic, mercury and more into the water, said Joel Waltzer, an attorney for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

DEQ was lax in issuing a permit without demanding more information about those substances, he argued. LEAN hopes the recent judgment will force state officials to host a new round of public comments so people with concerns about Thermaldyne have a forum to express their apprehensions.

Thermaldyne officials, meanwhile, have said they've spent the last three years making sure they've hit every bench mark the state and the federal government have laid out. Fears about the site are based on misinformation, Thermaldyne President Richard Cates wrote in a September letter to the editor published in The Advocate.

"Please know that neither I, nor our company, would jeopardize the health, safety and well-being of Baton Rouge area residents, our employees or the city where we live, work and play," he wrote.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has also argued that Thermaldyne officials have acted with the professionalism they would expect from a company that wants to contribute dozens of jobs and millions of dollars to the local economy in the coming years.

Letters: Quality jobs for Port Allen

But Waltzer said DEQ officials let Thermaldyne slide, and that without complete information, neighbors were shut out of the decision on whether to allow a large industrial waste processing facility near their homes.

"It's important that the public be allowed to participate," he said.

"That's modern democracy. ... Where do the people get to say no?"

Judge Morvant's order does not forbid Thermaldyne from creating a new recycling site. Mostly, it demands DEQ more rigorously adhere to its own standards. Morvant ordered the state to compel the company to "provide all applicable information that is legally required."

If the people in charge of preventing pollution aren't seeking all the information they need to determine whether a new facility is killing fish and giving people cancer, then the system has broken down, Waltzer said.

"That's why we're freaking out."


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.