When Nucor Steel built its $750 million iron ore purification plant in St. James Parish in the early 2010s, the facility was touted as having an innovative design that would minimize greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse compared to the older methods of the traditionally coal-dependent steel industry.
At the time, Nucor envisioned a five-phase, $3.25 billion integrated steel complex along the Mississippi River north of Convent.
The operation was supposed to include a $1 billion pig iron plant much sought after by the government of the day. Bobby Jindal’s administration, but it had come to the attention of President Obama’s US Environmental Protection Agency for its powerful greenhouse gas impacts.
Amid EPA concerns and market fluctuations, Nucor never built the pig iron plant. The first and only phase was the Big Iron Plant, which uses cleaner-burning natural gas to purify iron ore with lower greenhouse gas output than other designs, according to analysts and the society.
However, unprecedented for this type and size of steel plant, Nucor has gone through a learning curve when it comes to its air emissions, according to company officials.
And, in late 2019, Nucor admitted to multiple license violations over the previous six years for mist-inducing sulfur dioxide, flammable hydrogen sulfide gas, and corrosive sulfuric acid mist.
High sulfur emissions were previously unknown to the State Department of Environmental Quality and Nucor; the plant wasn’t even supposed to release hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid.
Ongoing problems with the operation, along with a US EPA inspection in March, prompted the federal agency to issue 11 Clean Air Act and declare environmental law violations earlier this month after a warning in January.
In the Nov. 3 document, the EPA says it can file a civil lawsuit against Nucor and fine the company up to $109,024 per violation per day since Nov. 2, 2015. .
The new violations come as the EPA investigates DEQ over allegations of discrimination against black residents already facing poor air quality, including air permits for the Formosa Chemicals complex in St. James, just across from Nucor.
Both sides of the north end of the parish – where Nucor and Formosa are located – are made up of small rural communities with mostly black residents, some of whom have been critics of Nucor broadcasts for several years.
Meanwhile, Nucor has sought state authority in recent months to dramatically increase permit limits on its emissions of greenhouse gases, these sulfur-based chemicals and other trace compounds.
Nucor’s 2019 disclosures to the DEQ had triggered a state compliance order, an $89,760 settlement and new state permit limits that allowed previously illegal pollution.
But, after costly testing of the plant’s inner workings in 2020 and 2021, Nucor found surprisingly higher levels of sulfur compounds and trace minerals.
The latest permit application would increase limits on hydrogen sulfide mist by 2.5 times and on sulfuric acid mist by more than six times current permit levels, giving the plant the right to be one of Louisiana’s biggest emitters of these two chemicals, federal and state data show.
Myrtle Felton, a neighbor and longtime Nucor critic, recently told DEQ officials that previously banned sulfuric acid pollution corroded her roof and metal shelter in her backyard before Hurricane Ida hit. destroyed them last year. The particles had forced her to stop babysitting her grandchildren at home.
“It’s time for this to stop. Enough is enough. I want to live. I don’t want to die from chemical poisoning. I have grandchildren to raise,” Felton said during a permit hearing at Convent late last month before the EPA violations. have been issued.
The hearing drew representatives from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and other groups, but also had a big show of support for Nucor.
Dressed in their overalls, employees filled the front aisles of parish council chambers inside the courthouse.
Calvin Hart, the plant’s general manager, Gramercy Mayor Steven Nosacka and others were among those applying for the permit.
Nucor has been a stable employer of more than 250 people, a major taxpayer in St. James and a supporter of the community, including training programs for local workers, they said.
Company officials point out that their own air modeling found that even high sulfur and other emissions would not increase background air to levels the state deems harmful to the environment. environment or the public.
Mobile twenty-four-hour air tests by DEQ in May and June confirmed the conclusion that air emissions were not a risk, Nucor officials said.
In a statement Saturday, a company spokeswoman added that the new air permit limits only reflect potential emissions, not actual emissions.
“This conservative approach using potential emissions demonstrates that even in the worst-case scenario, emissions from the Nucor DRI facility do not exceed allowable emission rates and concentrations,” spokeswoman Katherine Miller said.
The permit changes would also cut particulate pollution limits by more than a third to nearly half, according to regulatory documents.
But environmentalists and local activists argue the mobile monitoring was too brief to be conclusive and have long criticized the state’s toxic air standards as old and too loose for chronic, lifelong exposure.
When asked last week, DEQ officials declined to say how the EPA violations would affect Nucor’s permitting process.
“We don’t comment on specific permit decisions until a final decision has been made on the application,” spokesman Greg Langley said.
Langley pointed out that the permit incorporates Nucor’s final design and test results, accounts for previously underestimated emissions and strengthens record keeping to detect any violations.
The DEQ was also part of the process for issuing the EPA’s new violations, which Langley says address air exceedances that were not part of the state’s previous actions.
Spending over $400,000 to figure out why the air violations were happening, Nucor made some fixes, including a reluctant safety valve, and added a continuous monitor for hydrogen sulfide.
At bottom, however, the problem is with iron ore, which naturally has varying concentrations of sulfur, and the company’s difficulties in removing that sulfur from the waste gas, according to company officials.
Internal fixes attempted in 2021 caused significant outages and pressure swings that put “security or our team … at risk.” In permit documents, Nucor concluded that attempted internal repairs were “technically impractical” for its type of steel plant.
Instead, Nucor plans to rely on improved internal process control and an existing sulfur removal system.
Company executives had told DEQ in November 2019 that the system was not large enough to process iron ore with the highest sulfur concentrations; but, in a statement, Nucor officials said their combined changes met federal pollution control standards and would reduce sulfur emissions by more than 90%.
DEQ will accept comments on the Nucor permit until Monday, November 21.