A company that reclaims oil refinery waste may be required to identify the pollutants it wants to dump into the Intracoastal Waterway in West Baton Rouge Parish after the Supreme Court declined this week to hear an appeal from a lower court.
The Intracoastal supplies drinking water to 10,000 people in nearby Iberville Parish and additional businesses. It ultimately flows into the Atchafalaya Basin and Lake Palourde.
Thermaldyne LLC has been operating since April 2019 without an industrial wastewater discharge permit, though it has key permits for other operations. In January, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ordered the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to force the company to provide a "full listing of pollutants" before state regulators can consider authorizing discharges into the waterway.
The appeals court upheld a March 2019 order from 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant ordering DEQ to get the list from Thermaldyne.
An attorney for the environmental group that sued over the permit said Friday that the Supreme Court decision was a "victory for common sense."
"How is the DEQ supposed to protect the public if it doesn’t even know what kind of pollution a hazardous waste plant is going to put out," asked Clay Garside, who is representing the plaintiff, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "And how can the public have any input if DEQ won’t even tell the public what the hazardous waste plant is going to be doing, and what it’s going to be dumping? It can’t, and the courts saw that.”
In Thermaldyne's permit request, which was made before the plant started operations, the company had sought a waiver from having to identify the contents of the water releases, which the company said would be treated to safety standards.
Greg Langley, spokesman for DEQ, said on Friday he could not comment on the ruling, citing the agency's policy on speaking about pending litigation.
"We're just looking at the ruling to see what impact it will have," Langley said.
A spokeswoman for Thermaldyne referred questions to the company's chief operating officer, who couldn't be reached by telephone at the company's offices on Friday. When the 1st Circuit ruled in January, a company spokesman said it wouldn't "have an impact on current day-to-day operations."
The Supreme Court issued its 4-2 ruling denying review of the appellate decision on Monday.
In a letter sent to DEQ in February before the recent ruling, Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso wrote that he viewed the planned discharge as potentially "catastrophic" for his parish's water system because it has no alternative water source if the waterway is contaminated. He called the discharges "a threat to the health and safety" of parish residents.
According to a recent annual report submitted to DEQ, Thermaldyne handled nearly 8,050 tons of hazardous materials between April 2019 and the end of that year. That's about 4.4% of the 182,000 tons that facility has been permitted to handle in any year.
It's not clear exactly what materials were processed at the company's 28 acres off North Line Road in Port Allen because the annual report breaks out that information by federal hazardous materials code number.
The code numbers provided in the report, however, encompass harmful, toxic chemicals like benzene, lead, chromium, arsenic and several benzene derivatives, a federal listing shows. Benzene and at least one variant of chromium, hexavalent chromium, are known human carcinogens. High enough exposures to lead can cause organ and brain damage.
In recent months, the facility has handled wastes from the ExxonMobil refineries in Baton Rouge, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas; the Shell Oil refinery in Norco and another Shell facility in Deer Park, Texas; and from Shell Oil Products, also out of Norco, company reports say.
In December 2018, LEAN had sued DEQ secretary Chuck Carr Brown over the wastewater permit process for Thermaldyne.
LEAN is also separately challenging the recycling plant's air permit and a variance to state and federal hazardous waste rules, both of which DEQ has already granted. Another state court judge dismissed LEAN's suit in June over the variance, which is on appeal, and has the air permit challenge under advisement.
Though Thermaldyne is located in West Baton Rouge Parish, state litigation brought against DEQ must be filed in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The wastewater permit is one of several for which Thermaldyne got an expedited review, a DEQ program in which the agency allows applicants to pay for the overtime of permit writers. Some critics see this practice as a conflict of interest for an agency charged with protecting the environment.
It's not clear how Thermaldyne is operating and dealing with its wastewater without a discharge permit, but, permit document say, at least some treated wastewater may be used to cool the hot, treated solid wastes coming out of the complex's operations. Other wastes are shipped off.