ST. JAMES — The YCI Methanol One complex rising from former sugar cane fields in St. James Parish is expected to start operations later this year, but a handful of parish residents and environmental activists claim the company's plans to dump its treated process water into the Mississippi River could threaten drinking water for nearly 24,000 people in the parish.
The owners of the huge methanol facility under construction since 2017 are seeking state permission to dump treated wastewater into the river and also to release rainfall runoff and sewer effluent into the far smaller and slower moving St. James Canal south of the 1,200-acre complex.
YCI officials say they'll treat the process water and rainfall runoff from process areas, while the runoff outside those areas won't pose a risk to the St. James Canal.
But opponents have been warning state regulators since June about what they see as a health risk for the parish's residents, who rely on the Mississippi for drinking water and the canal for hunting, fishing and watering cattle, and reiterated those concerns last week during a public hearing just days before the comment period ends Monday afternoon.
They want the state Department of Environmental Quality to rewrite the permit with tougher monitoring requirements and to scrutinize YCI's runoff calculations for the canal, which could, at peak times, receive more than 29 million gallons per day of largely rainfall runoff from the plant.
"We have to drink the water. We have to bathe in the water. We have to wash in the water, so what more do y'all want to do with us," St. James resident Beverly Alexander asked during the hearing.
YCI's proposed Mississippi discharge point is 3 miles upstream of the intake for the parish's east bank water system near Hester and 5 miles upstream of the west bank intake near Vacherie. Two other intakes are farther downstream in the parish. YCI is on the parish's west bank largely between the river and the canal.
Under YCI's plans, the plant would suck up an average of 5.2 million gallons per day in river water for cooling towers, boilers and other processes. The company then wants to discharge an average of 1.73 million gallons per day of treated wastewater back into the river, an amount dwarfed by the flow in the mighty Mississippi.
Cycling that river water through the plant's systems can pick up an array of harmful contaminants, like heavy metals, carcinogens and other toxic compounds. Even runoff from rain that falls in these process areas can become contaminated.
Officials with YCI Methanol say the complex would have the latest controls and regular monitoring to ensure discharges into the Mississippi and the canal wouldn't exceed state and federal health and safety standards. Runoff from outside the process areas would be routed through a separate discharge system.
"The guidelines represent the highest degree of effluent reduction attainable by the application of best practicable control technology," said Marc Hoss, vice president of manufacturing for YCI Methanol.
YCI plans to make 5,510 tons per day of methanol, a stable chemical building block for a variety of consumer products but especially plastics, an important growth market for the petrochemical industry.
Announced in 2014, the project, a joint venture of Koch Methanol and Yuhuang Chemical Industries, has run into financial head winds, but Koch eventually helped recapitalize the project in 2019, taking a 60% stake.
Construction of the plant has spurred up to 2,000 temporary construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs, including 23 workers from St. James Parish, and already generated $10 million in local and state sales tax collections, Hoss said. Over the next 20 years, even after $300 million in state property tax exemptions, YCI will pay the parish nearly $110 million in property tax revenue, he said.
In the mid-2010s, local officials welcomed the facility's arrival, agreeing to sell the rural west bank community's high school, St. James High, for more than $10 million to Yuhuang Chemical to make way for the plant now behind the old school. Officials also convinced voters to pass a new property tax to build a new high school in Vacherie away from the future plant.
But, as more big projects were announced in St. James after YCI, a small but vocal faction of residents began to oppose further industrial development in largely African American communities along the river. They have been joined by regional and national environmental groups opposed to new facilities that would further feed the world's demand for plastics.
The powerful flow of the Mississippi has drawn dozens of plants to the river, for transportation, water supply and an easy place to discharge wastewater with quick dilution. State regulators, for instance, have encouraged officials in nearby Ascension Parish to route their sewer systems to the river and away from smaller slower moving bayous.
According to YCI's calculations, the river's average flow is 159,000 times greater than YCI's planned daily discharge, which is roughly equivalent to the volume of water in about 2½ Olympic swimming pools. Peak flows from the plant would be about double that, however.
During a DEQ public hearing Thursday night on the grounds of YCI's administration facility — the old St. James High School — environmental advocates argued the agency needs to take into account the cumulative impact of all those plants discharging into the river and give this new request further scrutiny.
"It is not in the state's interest to eliminate residents from the area by making the water undrinkable and the land unlivable," said Scott Eustis, community science director for Healthy Gulf, an environmental group based in New Orleans.
Eustis asked DEQ to do weekly testing for many carcinogens that could be released in the river and canal, instead of monthly testing that could miss short pulses of rain runoff.
With the permit pending, DEQ officials were unwilling to offer much comment, but, in an interview, DEQ Assistant Secretary Elliott Vega said the complex is not seeking any variance or exceptions to discharge requirements in the draft permit the agency has put forward.
Even so, the plant could legally discharge up to 1,767 pounds of carcinogens per year, according to Healthy Gulf's calculations from permit documents.
"Unless this situation is addressed, I believe this permit will make a potentially dire matter worse," Adrienne Katner, an LSU public health professor, said in written comments.
Katner argued for even more rigorous testing at drinking water plants. She said she has found a pattern of drinking water treatment violations, including some that are tied to colorectal cancer risk. One census tract in St. James Parish, across the river in Lutcher, has elevated rates of colorectal cancer.
She did, however, note there are other causes for colorectal cancer, including eating too much red meat, alcohol use, obesity and family history.
Naomi Yoder, another Healthy Gulf official, said she verified with water plant officials in St. James that 29 toxic organic chemicals that YCI would be able to discharge under DEQ's draft permit aren't currently tested for by the parish water systems.
Amber Shepherd, parish government spokeswoman, said parish officials don't believe the discharges would pose a concern because the water will continue to be treated and meet the same drinking water requirements at the plant.