The Cornerstone Chemical Co. plant on River Road in Waggaman has produced cyanide on the site for more than half a century.
But until the plant’s owners quietly received approval for a $100 million expansion from the Jefferson Parish Council last year — an approval that was recently rescinded, sparking a legal battle — few residents knew the toxic chemical was being produced there.
Fewer still are likely aware that in the past several years, the plant, known as the Fortier Manufacturing Complex, has been found responsible for two accidents involving the chemical, and has also been found on multiple occasions to have violated federal laws aimed at protecting communities from pollution.
An examination of reports from state and federal agencies, as well as other documents, shows a history of fines and regulatory actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality against the plant stretching back decades, with several actions occurring since Cornerstone Chemical took ownership in 2011.
No one has died or suffered severe injury due to cyanide accidents, leaks or other events at the plant, according to the reports. And experts say that while cyanide and its related chemical compounds are dangerous to humans and animals, its reputation as a deadly poison isn’t necessarily the best gauge of whether the plant poses a risk to nearby residents.
Still, a detailed look at the plant’s regulatory history shows a safety record dotted with infractions that place the plant high on the list of violators even in chemical industry-heavy south Louisiana.
Of the 2,253 industrial facilities in Jefferson Parish, the EPA has flagged the Cornerstone plant as one of 62 facilities, or just 3 percent of the total, to have been charged with a “significant violation” of federal pollution laws.
That violation happened when the company failed to submit a report showing how much waste it was discharging into nearby bodies of water, the EPA alleged in records.
Other incidents at the plant include a leak earlier this month of 3,600 gallons of highly corrosive sulfuric acid that escaped from a leaking pipe; a May 2017 release of 234 pounds of cyanide into the Mississippi River, which was four times the amount allowed under the company’s permit; and a 2011 accident that exposed three maintenance workers to cyanide gas and briefly sent one of them to the hospital.
Cornerstone officials did not respond to requests for comment about its violations, saying only that the plant has "safely produced, handled and managed hydrocyanic acid (HCN) at the Fortier site since 1953."
The Jefferson Parish Council, which 15 months ago gave unanimous permission for Cornerstone …
But in March, the company’s chief operating officer, Tom Yura, said that the company has been a good neighbor and has made “every effort” to work with Jefferson Parish and the community to address their concerns about the plant and its proposed expansion.
“All elements of our application satisfy the procedural and substantive requirements of the parish’s special-use permit application process,” Yura said.
Checking the track record
The Cornerstone plant is among the five largest U.S. polluters of cyanide compounds, according to a list compiled by the EPA in 2016. Cyanide is a chemical used for fumigation, manufacturing plastics, jewelry-buffing and a host of industrial processes.
The EPA ranks the 118 facilities in the United States that produce cyanide in terms of the risk they pose to nearby communities in handling of the poisonous chemical. The Cornerstone plant is roughly in the middle of the ranking, according to the Toxic Release Inventory, a federal database.
Preston MacDougall, a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said cyanide’s deadly reputation probably exceeds its actual danger, but he also warned residents to look at a company’s individual history when assessing the risk a chemical or a plant poses.
“People should pay attention to the (company’s) track record of accidents rather than the scariness of the word cyanide,” said MacDougall. “That’s what I would convey to the public.”
Cyanide, described by medical experts as a “highly lethal” chemical compound, has been synonymous with poison for about 2,000 years.
Nero, the Roman emperor, reportedly killed his enemies using cherry-laurel water laced with cyanide. In the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, French troops dipped their bayonet tips into the poison. During World War II, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Adolf Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, each committed suicide using cyanide capsules.
And in the 1980s and early 1990s, 11 people died from cyanide that had been deliberately put into over-the-counter medication, including the infamous “Tylenol murders” in Illinois, which prompted the widespread roll-out of tamper-resistant packaging.
Experts differ over how dangerous a chemical plant that manufactures cyanide can be to neighboring residents, with some scientists saying that the idea of the poisonous chemical is more frightening than the actual risks posed, and others arguing that such plants are dangerous because of the potential for rare, but possibly deadly, accidents.
Vikhyat Beberta, a medical toxicologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said the actual health risk of a cyanide leak from a chemical plant would depend on quantity, proximity and wind direction. But because it dissipates into the air quickly, it’s more dangerous to plant workers or others in enclosed spaces than it is to nearby neighborhoods.
He also pointed out that people encounter cyanide all the time in small doses through certain foods, cigarette smoke and even when sitting near campfires. The most common cases of cyanide poisoning result from burning buildings, he said.
“The fact is, anytime there is a fire, you’re inhaling cyanide,” Bebarta said. “People inhale it and they don’t think twice about it.”
Its danger to people living in proximity to a production facility is less understood.
In an airborne release, doses of cyanide gas can become lethal in as little as 10 minutes at 2,500 milligram-minutes per cubic meter, a measurement that takes into account exposure time. When ingested as sodium or potassium cyanide, the lethal dose is 100 to 200 milligrams, or about 4 to 8 grains of salt, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
The EPA says that nonlethal exposure can result in neurological disorders, while smaller amounts can cause breathing problems.
No chance to evacuate
Some environmental activists say the risk from a cyanide plant is too great for one to be located near where people live. Wilma Subra, with the advocacy organization Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said that a cyanide leak at the Waggaman plant could be particularly dangerous because of how close the plant is to neighborhoods.
“You’re not going to get a chance to evacuate,” Subra said. “It’s not like (the plant is) in the middle of a desert. They’re right up against a residential community.”
Subra began speaking out against the plant earlier this year after residents, already concerned about their industrial neighbors because of noxious smells and particulate matter many had experienced recently, began raising public safety questions at Parish Council meetings about a proposed expansion at the Cornerstone plant.
The Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday balked at rescinding an ordinance it passed last y…
There have been five cyanide-related emergency incidents at chemical companies or on railways in Louisiana, according to state records dating back to 1970. Two of them happened at the Waggaman plant under Cornerstone’s operation.
The most recent one was on May 17, 2017, when 234 pounds of cyanide were released into the Mississippi River. The release, which was flagged by the EPA for violating permitting under the Clean Water Act, was caused by the “unanticipated failure of several check valves" that allowed toxic liquids to backflow through a wastewater treatment system into the river, according to an incident report.
Another accident was reported in 2011 when three maintenance workers were exposed to hydrogen cyanide gas while trying to fix a clogged drain valve, including one who was hospitalized after being “overcome by fumes” from liquid containing steam and cyanide.
He was brought to West Jefferson Medical Center after being given amyl nitrite to counteract any effects of hydrogen cyanide that might have entered his bloodstream, documents show. He returned to work the next day.
The other cyanide leaks in Louisiana were relatively minor. In 2012, less than a pound leaked from a facility in St. Gabriel, and in 2013, three Union Pacific train cars carrying hydrogen cyanide derailed in Avondale but didn't appear to spill, according to state officials.
The most recent incident happened at a manufacturer in Coushatta in January 2018. An owl flew into an electrical line, tripped the power connection and was electrocuted. Officials estimated that about two pounds of cyanide were released into the air, along with other chemicals.
Clean Air Act violations
Other reports on the Cornerstone plant have detailed leaks and other issues, including times when the plant violated the Clean Air Act.
Workers at the plant have been responsible for several ammonia releases that have resulted in as many as 300 pounds of the chemical being released into the air at a time, sometimes for as long as 17 hours straight, documents show.
Nearly a half-dozen ammonia leaks were reported in 2014, 2015 and 2018. Some resulted in fines for the company because they were due to inadequate mechanics — including undersized or failing pumps and other poorly maintained control devices — or from human error. Ammonia can cause respiratory distress and "serious burns" in the mouth, lungs and eyes, according to the EPA.
In addition to Clean Air Act violations, the company allegedly failed to properly safeguard against potential spills, according to documents from the LDEQ that showed the company faces the potential for more fines over possible violations of the Chemical Accident Prevention Program, designed to prevent large-scale accidents and minimize the effects of those that do happen.
In one instance, Cornerstone was five months late in submitting a report showing the plant's potential hazards and failed to outline what safety measures would be taken if workers were exposed to chemicals, according to findings from an inspection in August.
The company also failed to do preventative maintenance on at least 13 pieces of equipment, including those used to produce or store acid, the inspection found.
In February, Cheryl Seager, the director of the EPA's enforcement division, sent a request to Cornerstone for specifics about more recent flares in response to "information specific to" Cornerstone, along with "widespread noncompliance" industry-wide.
The EPA hasn't released the company's response.
Sugar cane to cyanide
Cyanide has been made since 1954 at the Fortier location, which was formerly a sugar cane and rice plantation acquired through a land grant from the Spanish government and built by slave labor under the direction of planter Eugene Fortier I.
The plantation, named Orange Grove, stayed in the hands of the family until it was sold in 1952 to the American Cyanamid Co., which later formed a spin-off, Cytec Industries.
The plant’s current owner, Cornerstone Chemical Co., bought the 800-acre manufacturing complex and its cyanide production in 2011. It delivers cyanide to an onsite tenant, Evonik Industries, which uses it to make plastics, paints and coatings for the oil and gas industry.
The site is immediately surrounded by acres of woods but is about two miles from the nearest neighborhood in Waggaman, about two miles from the town of Ama on the west bank, and just across the river from New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport.
The company announced its planned expansion in 2017. At the time, officials said they would “significantly increase” hydrogen cyanide production.
Then, last May, the company applied to LDEQ for a permit to upgrade facilities in a $20 million renovation including two new 26,000-gallon storage tanks. Ultimately, the design would increase acrylonitrile output while decreasing the byproduct, hydrogen cyanide, officials said.
But more recently, company officials, citing a contractual obligation with Evonik, said they now would need to make more cyanide in order to maintain the earlier level of production of the chemical.
The permit from LDEQ allows the company to make up to 50 million pounds of liquid hydrogen cyanide a year.
According to the permit, the plant planned to reduce pollution through a closed venting system and a thermal oxidizer, a piece of equipment used to burn off excess emissions. Cornerstone has said the two storage tanks would not be permanently filled with hydrogen cyanide and would hold it only when the plant is shut down for various reasons.
In 2018, the Jefferson Parish Council approved Cornerstone’s permit with little notice. But under pressure from constituents, members voted 6-1 in April to reconsider the permit. Cornerstone sued.
Several business organizations lobbied against the decision, saying the council would lose in the courts and would be setting a bad precedent for the future, telling companies they cannot rely on decisions by the council. But council members are hoping they can come to an agreement with the company.
“I definitely got a sense that Cornerstone has the capacity to modify their ask,” Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken said. “When you’re talking about a chemical that is potentially deadly, I don’t think you can just leave them to walk away and hope for the best.”
Documents show that the company emitted relatively little hydrogen cyanide — 2,483 pounds — into the air in 2016, putting it in the lower half of the list of U.S. polluters for that particular form of the chemical.
However, that same year the company was the fourth largest polluter of all cyanide compounds, releasing 599,528 pounds into underground wells. Those wells are used to inject hazardous wastes into deep rock formations, and are typically drilled thousands of feet below the deepest source of drinking water, according to the EPA.
Still, residents remain concerned about the potential for more cyanide production in Jefferson Parish. More than 300 wrote letters or signed petitions urging officials not to let the company build the expanded plant.
Among them was St. Rose resident Shyann Dupuy, who said she lives not far from the plant with her husband and baby.
"Adding another chemical plant so close to my family's house makes for a total of five chemical plants, more air and ground water pollutants, health effects, fire hazards, and even more of a toxic smell," Dupuy wrote. "This plant only creates more of a health issue for my family, and the families around me."