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Regulators require Louisiana fertilizer plant to pay for $84M cleanup of acidic ponds

PCS Nitrogen geismar phosphogypsum pond
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In a settlement, federal and state regulators required Canadian agricultural company PCS Nitrogen to clean up its radioactive stacks of phosphogypsum and ponds of corrosive wastewater accumulated after years of fertilizer production in Geismar, La.

A Canadian fertilizer company will have to treat more than 1 billion pounds of acidic, hazardous wastewater accumulated from its now-defunct plant in Geismar and secure at least $84 million to properly close the facility, according to a settlement 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 levied against PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer, L.P. – now part of a company called Nutrien – for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The settlement tries to resolve almost 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 stacks about a mile-and-a-half from the plant.

Between 2004 and 2012, the company also accepted waste shipped from a neighboring generator, Innophos, Inc., that 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 started phasing out the plant in late 2018 and has begun constructing a wastewater treatment system to process the ponds over the next several years.

“This is a very important outcome as the facility is located in an area prone to hurricanes and the financial assurance secured will protect taxpayers from paying future closure and cleanup costs,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield for the EPA’s enforcement office.

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

“This settlement represents a lot of hard work by LDEQ enforcement and legal staffs who joined their EPA counterparts in drafting this settlement,” said LDEQ Secretary Dr. Chuck Carr Brown. “It will provide a protective solution for decades to come.”

Healthy Gulf Senior Policy Director Matt Rota criticized the settlement, calling the $1.5 million fine too little considering how long it took to address the plant's pollution.

"In order for penalties to be effective, they need to be felt by the offender. The settlement documents show that PCS Nitrogen illegally disposed of hazardous waste for years. I would not be surprised if they made over $1.5 million just in accepting the waste," Rota said Thursday.

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

Environmental groups have opposed this plan over concerns that the discharge could contaminate that drinking water supply.

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

Nutrien, the company that absorbed 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 it leaves the site. Ammonia is used in fertilizer production, as well as fuel for ships and industrial plants.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk.

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