BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Noranda Alumina officials say they believe their nearly 55-year-old refinery in St. James Parish has been releasing mercury into the air without a permit, possibly since operations began in 1959.
The Advocate reports the owners of the once-bankrupt Kaiser Aluminum complex on the Mississippi River are asking state regulators for permission to release up to 250 pounds of mercury per year. That would make the plant one of the largest mercury polluters of Louisiana's air while Noranda officials figure out what is causing the air releases, state and federal records show.
Noranda officials told the state Department of Environmental Quality in April and May that they believe the mercury is rising from steam vents tied to plant heat exchangers, although DEQ has not permitted the release of mercury into the air from anywhere at the plant.
"If so, the facility has probably always emitted these small amounts of mercury to the atmosphere, and the emissions can be expected to continue into the future," Noranda Alumina President David P. Hamling wrote to DEQ on May 28.
John Parker, Noranda vice president of communications, said the emissions are not a risk to the public. Company officials have since "been working with DEQ at DEQ's pace to set up monitoring protocols for this," he said.
Bryan Johnston, senior environmental scientist in DEQ's Air Permits Division, said "there is no indication at this point that there is anything to be concerned about."
But the air permit that Noranda is asking for would make the plant Louisiana's second largest air emitter of mercury or mercury compounds, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory data. In 2013, the latest year for which data has been reported, only NRG's Big Cajun II coal-fired plant in New Roads, which released 486 pounds, would have surpassed the 250-pound limit Noranda is now seeking.
"Two-hundred-fifty pounds of mercury per year is not an insignificant amount because mercury is so highly toxic at very low concentrations," said John Walke, director of the clean air program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.
The Noranda plant, near the foot of the Veterans Memorial Bridge and across La. 3213 from Gramercy, makes alumina, which feeds the company's aluminum smelter near New Madrid, Missouri. The alumina also is sold and can be used in industrial catalysts and abrasives, as well as deodorant.