A Louisiana iron plant pumped sulfur gas in the air for nearly six years before anybody caught it | News
For nearly six years, the Nucor Steel ironworks in St. James Parish released corrosive sulfuric acid mist and highly flammable, rotten-egg-smelling hydrogen sulfide into the air – and neither the plant nor the regulators knew about it, documents show.
Only in mid-2019 did a test reveal that the plant was one of the 15 largest emitters of hydrogen sulfide in Louisiana – although the plant did not have a permit to discharge the gas.
The company complains about a design flaw in the eight-year-old plant and a higher than expected sulfur content in the ore processed.
Four months after the test, the North Carolina-based company reported the results to the State Department of Environmental Quality. Less than three months later, regulators revised the facility’s permit to allow the gases to be released in significantly reduced quantities that do not trigger tighter pollutant controls.
Sanctions against the company are still pending.
Nucor Corp.’s St. James Parish plant produced 4.55 million tons of direct reduced iron with peak operating rates of over 90 percent of capacity …
Environmental groups and some local residents say the episode highlights the kind of weak scrutiny that DEQ Nucor has placed on ex-Governor Bobby Jindal’s administration since the facility opened in 2013.
These proponents also criticize a proposed $ 89,760 deal between DEQ and Nucor to fix other violations from 2014 to 2018, saying it is way too small. Taken together, they say that all of this shows a pattern in which Nucor admits wrongdoing without facing any consequences from the state, and later sees its permits adjusted to make some of its previous violations legal.
“Allowing such lax compliance is extremely dangerous for both Nucor’s current neighbors and the future of St. James Parish,” wrote attorneys at Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
DEQ followed a similar path at Noranda Alumina after the company discovered in 2014 that its Gramercy facility accidentally released toxic mercury into the air. DEQ eventually approved the levels of reported emissions at the St. James facility, found they posed no risk to the public, and fined Noranda $ 95,750.
Noranda Alumina, a manufacturer based out of Gramercy, who learned more than three years ago that they were unwittingly releasing mercury into the air …
At that time, the Air Permit finally authorized Noranda to be Louisiana’s primary air emitter of mercury near the Blind River – where evidence of fish mercury has been around for years – despite state and federal agencies pushing Louisiana’s coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions.
For Nucor’s settlement, the environmental groups are demanding a much higher fine, which would be more dissuasive, demands on Nucor to improve its environmental protection measures, better monitoring in the vicinity of the plant to detect gases and notifying residents of plant malfunctions.
Nucor is currently aiming for a $ 120 million expansion, but the company’s own approval application shows the addition would also double or nearly double fine particulate matter and some smog-producing air pollution that can damage the respiratory tract.
“The state and Nucor only want this settlement so that Nucor can expand,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “But as the company’s own records show, it can’t even handle its current operations. Only an agency like our sad DEQ – Polluters’ Paradise – would offer such a pathetic deal to a notorious polluter who puts people’s lives at risk. “
DEQ and Nucor officials on Wednesday did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement and opposition from the Tulane Clinic, which represents residents who live next to Nucor in Romeville.
President Donald Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports could adversely affect Louisiana as the primary user of steel …
Jindal government officials had hoped Nucor would build a five-phase, $ 3.4 billion complex with 1,250 jobs. A billion dollar blast furnace would have been the centerpiece.
In addition to many state and local tax breaks, the state of Nucor lured in an unusual 30-year property tax exemption on 4,000 hectares that still annoys local officials. Nucor eventually built only one of the phases, a direct reduced iron complex, on the agricultural land between River Road and La. 3125.
The $ 750 million facility, the largest of its kind in the world, removes oxide contaminants from iron ore so the metal can be processed into steel elsewhere in Nucor’s supply chain. The plant, which employs 150 people, is heavily dependent on Louisiana’s cheap natural gas supplies.
Nucor is now talking about a new pelleting plant that will reuse leftover iron oxide pieces, coke dust and other material to produce 400,000 tons of additional iron oxide pellets annually, which can be reprocessed in the DRI plant, according to the approval documents.
A high emitter – and nobody knew it
Hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid mist are potentially harmful to workers and the surrounding public. In the highest concentrations, they can cause serious injury and death, private and state reports show.
There is no indication in the state’s reports that anyone outside the facility was harmed by the emissions.
Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that is heavier than air and can build up on the ground and under high-rise buildings and other low-lying, poorly ventilated areas until it becomes an explosion hazard. Employees in the chemical and energy industries are trained to take precautions.
Nucor Corp. reported an expected operating loss at its new direct reduction ironworks in St. James Parish on Friday, with expectations …
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Nucor estimates that it has released an estimated 167.3 tons of hydrogen sulfide in the six years in question. Based on federal reporting data, these emission years were in the top 15 of all complexes in Louisiana, with three years in the top 10.
In its largest year, 2016, Nucor had the fifth highest hydrogen sulfide emissions in the country, according to data from the federal Toxics Release Inventory. The company released an estimated 42.74 tons that year.
Earlier estimates Nucor had submitted to DEQ put combined emissions nearly 15% higher than current estimates over the six years and had pushed the company even higher in the national rankings. At the end of June, Nucor revised its numbers downwards.
The release of unacceptable sulfuric acid mist is substantial, reaching nearly 8 tons in 2018, but ranks far lower among other facilities in Louisiana.
According to the revised approval levels, Nucor may not emit more than 9.77 tons of hydrogen sulfide per year. The annual emissions of sulfuric acid mist must not exceed 4.7 tons.
The St. James Parish government would lose $ 6.8 million in one fell swoop, 20 percent of its budget.
Nucor says it fixed the design flaw. Hydrogen sulfide gas was mistakenly bypassed a scrubber to prevent it from being released.
The company also says it is making other changes to reduce other sulfur emissions and bring them below current permit limits.
How much should fines be?
Environmentalists have often criticized DEQ for other settlements with longstanding and unsolved violations from multi-billion dollar manufacturers seeking new permits to expand their operations.
In early December, DEQ cleared two settlements with Plaquemine-based Shintech valued at $ 150,000, closing dozen of 2008 violations. The agreement came just weeks before the company announced it would expand its Iberville Parish operations by $ 1.3 billion.
Under state law, DEQ generally has the power to impose fines of up to $ 32,500 per day per violation, depending on the year, but the agency rarely uses the full scope of that power. Agency officials have said they prefer to get companies to comply.
At the same time, DEQ was also under fire for being too slow in ending labor violations.
In January, Louisiana Legislative Auditor accused DEQ of hanging around unsolved violations for years. The audit found that the average time to completion doubled from 10 to 20 months between 2015 and 2019.
Some violations took up to nine years to fix, the auditors found.
However, the pace of settlement has accelerated significantly since the end of 2018. The number of settlements averaged 72.4 per year between 2011 and 2018, but hit 104 in 2019 and 120 in 2020, according to an Advocate analysis of the DEQ data.
The average pace of settlement in 2019 and 2020 represents an increase of almost 55% compared to the average pace of the last eight years.
Just over halfway through 2021, DEQ proposed or reached 83 settlements nationwide, including the one with Nucor, data from the agency shows.
Why was the air monitor turned off?
In the pending settlement, DEQ found that Nucor had committed a number of paperwork errors and a number of other increased emissions of fine dust, tiny particles that cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems, as well as smog-producing nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. The company acknowledged that many of these outages were preventable, DEQ says.
In addition, for a year and a half in 2017 and 2018, the company did not carry out the required monitoring of the ambient air for fine dust from the iron oxide ore and other dusty materials.
Company officials have told DEQ that they believe its responsibility for aerial surveillance has ended and will turn off the monitor sometime before January 1, 2017. This resulted in 77 cases of reporting errors.
In fact, according to DEQ, the ongoing requirement that has existed since the plant opened at the end of 2013 has not yet ended. But after the inspectors found the errors, Nucor asked DEQ for a permit change and received a permit change in mid-2018 that removed the monitoring requirement in exchange for new dust controls, as the agency’s enforcement records show.
Under the proposed settlement, Nucor would not admit guilt for this or any other alleged breach.
“Nucor soot and chemicals end up on my property and pollution is bad for my health. I live on a steady income so I have no choice but to clean up Nucor’s mess myself. Why isn’t Nucor held responsible for repairs? I am so sick and tired and tired of it, “said Myrtle Felton of Romeville in a joint statement with the Bucket Brigade.
The Times-Picayune / The Advocate reporter Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.