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Coastal News Roundup: Jefferson Parish Could Revoke Cyanide Plant Permit

Drew Broach
/ | The Times-Picayune
The Cornerstone Chemical Co. plant is located in Waggaman in Jefferson Parish.

The company that owns a big chemical factory in Jefferson Parish wants to expand, but is getting pushbackfrom residents who are concerned about air quality.

This week on the Coastal News Roundup, WWNO’s Travis Lux talks with | The Times-Picayune reporter Drew Broach about where things go from here.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity:

Q: The company that owns this big chemical plant is called Cornerstone. It makes a chemical there known as hydrogen cyanide. What is it, and what is it used for?


Hydrogen cyanide is a gas and it is used indirectly in the production of nylons, plastics, papers, textiles, and has other industrial uses.  

Q: More than a year ago, Cornerstone asked the Jefferson Parish Council to approve its plan to expand the chemical plant. The Parish did that. But just in the last couple months, residents have been complaining and the council is thinking about changing its mind. How did we get to this point?


Some of the residents in the area discovered, four or five months ago, that the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was considering granting an air quality permit for this new cyanide plant and went ballistic. They launched a letter-writing campaign -- first to DEQ to deny the air quality permit.


Then they found out that Jefferson Parish council had previously granted a permit for it, so they turned on the parish council, too, and asked the council to undo its previous approval.


Q: What are the residents mostly concerned about?


On a visceral level, just the word “cyanide” is a little bit alarming to people who don’t understand it. Originally it was a chemical warfare agent, but it does a lot of industrial applications as I said. But the residents are very concerned about their health and the environment and what happens if there’s and explosion or accidental release of hydrogen cyanide.


Q: Several of months ago a lot of residents in the River Ridge area were upset about the smells in their neighborhood. These really putrid smells that were causing people to cough. At least one of the reasons for that was the big landfill on the West Bank. Do you think this has anything to do with that issue?


It does in sort of the historical context, because the landfill issues were what got many of these residents alarmed in the first place. But once they increased their sensitivity to that, they began looking at the industrial plants up and down the river and wondered, “What else is going on out there? What else is in our air?” And so they began to identify Cornerstone as another potential problem for them.


Q: Is there any evidence right now that the Cornerstone facility could be contributing to those smell issues?


There’s been no direct evidence or scientific evidence that I know of that Cornerstone is part of the smell problem for this area, but certainly there’s a lot of circumstantial suspicion about it.


Q: Last month, council members said they would “amend” their previous decision to approve the expansion at the March 20th meeting. “Amend” could mean a number of things. What happens if they revoke the approval?


If they outright revoke the approval, Cornerstone would be illegal if it goes ahead and builds this plant, because they need a bulk storage permit for flammable and hazardous liquids. So they would not have the local government’s approval and wouldn’t be able to do it under a legal scenario.


Q: Cornerstone says it’s already spent millions of dollars on this expansion. If the council does revoke that approval, could that open up the council or the parish to legal concerns -- the possibility of being sued?


Well I’m not a lawyer, but even some of the council members privately admit, “yes.” That gives them some exposure. And Cornerstone has sort of subtly made that case -- that it’s already spent $14 million out of the planned $100 million it would cost to build, and that it has a “vested interest” in the permit that the parish council has already approved.


There’s recent history on this kind of case. In Old Metairie, the parish council approved a 6-story condominium building and then started moving to revoke its approval. The condo developer promptly sued them and they had to negotiate a settlement over that.  


The Coastal News Roundup airs every Friday at 7:45am and 4:44pm.


Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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