Regulators demand Louisiana fertilizer plant pay $84 million for acid pond cleanup

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A Canadian fertilizer company will have to treat more than a billion pounds of acidic and dangerous wastewater accumulated by its now defunct Geismar plant and get at least $84 million to properly shut down the facility, according to a colony with federal and state environmental agencies released Thursday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Justice, and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality will also split a $1.5 million fine against PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer, LP – which is now part of a company called Nutrien – for violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The colony is trying to solve nearly two decades of waste management problems at the fertilizer plant in Ascension Parish. From the 1960s to 2018, PCS Nitrogen and its predecessors disposed of corrosive wastewater and radioactive chalky white waste called phosphogypsum in 200-foot-tall piles about a mile and a half from the plant.

Between 2004 and 2012, the company also accepted waste shipped from a nearby generator, Innophos, Inc., which was disposed of in the same piles. The two hazardous waste streams were mixed illegally, according to the EPA, among several other violations.

The company began to close the factory end of 2018 and began construction of a sewage treatment system to treat the ponds over the next few years.

“This is a very significant result because the facility is located in a hurricane-prone area and the financial assurance obtained will protect ratepayers from paying future closure and cleanup costs,” said Larry Starfield, administrator. Acting Deputy of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement.

Once closed, PCS Nitrogen will be responsible for the large stacks and 100-acre phosphogypsum ponds for over 50 years.

“This rule represents a lot of hard work by the LDEQ enforcement and legal teams who joined with their counterparts at the EPA to draft this rule,” said LDEQ Secretary Dr. Chuck Carr Brown. “It will provide a protection solution for decades to come.”

Healthy Gulf senior policy director Matt Rota criticized the settlement, calling the $1.5 million fine too little considering the time it took to address the pollution from the plant.

“For penalties to be effective, they must be felt by the offender. Settlement documents show that PCS Nitrogen has been illegally disposing of hazardous waste for years. I wouldn’t be surprised if they earned over $1.5 million dollars just by accepting the waste,” Rota said Thursday.

Last year, the company proposed to discharge treated sewage in the Mississippi River — a plan that is still under consideration for a water permit, LDEQ spokesman Greg Langley said. The river provides drinking water to nearly one million Louisiana residents downstream of the Ascension Parish site, including those of Jefferson Parish and New Orleans.

Environmental groups have opposed the plan, fearing the discharge will contaminate this drinking water supply.

Langley said the $775,000 LDEQ expects to receive will go into its hazardous waste cleanup fund.

Nutrien, the company that acquired PCS Nitrogen, is considering Geismar for the construction of a “clean ammonia” plant, relying on technology to capture most of the greenhouse gases produced before they leave the site. Ammonia is used in the production of fertilizers, as well as fuel for ships and industrial plants.

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