St. James Residents Fight Back Against Nucor Plant

“Nucor Steel” by Tobias Higbie is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On July 30th, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that uses grassroots action to produce petrochemical pollution accountability, released a press statement detailing a recent proposed settlement between the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and Nucor Steel Louisiana LLC. 

The settlement finds that Nucor’s Romeville facility in St. James Parish repeatedly violated its permits from 2014 to 2019, including consistent failure to notify residents bordering the facility of unpermitted releases and emergency dumps in their locale. The settlement issues a potential single $89,760.32 penalty for this behavior with no other requirements. The issue to Louisiana Bucket Brigade is that this settlement doesn’t do much to remedy these regular abuses.

Inclusive Louisiana, a faith-based organization for anti-pollution efforts, and Louisiana Bucket Brigade submitted comments to the LDEQ following the settlement, which can be read here. Their complaint is that the settlement does not punish Nucor enough and does nothing to ensure long-term checks on their history of being an illegal polluter. 

Anne Rolfes, Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, feels like the settlement is just a palliative to recuperate the image of Nucor, “The only reason that the state and Nucor want this settlement is so that Nucor can expand,” she continues, “but as the company’s own records show, it can’t even handle its current operations.”

What Rolfes is referring to is the multiple permit violations detailed by the settlement. According to the settlement document released by LDEQ, Nucor released 139.53 tons of hydrogen sulfide and 21.26 tons of sulfuric acid mist into the Romeville Community from 2014 to 2018. They had no permit to allow this behavior. 

Additionally, Nucor supposedly did three concurrent emergency dumps in 2015 without notifying the outlying community like it is required. In January 2021, Nucor failed a stack test, also known as a performance or source test, showing emissions of 14 of 19 pollutants tested for. These pollutants included carbon monoxide, Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) (a pollutant that leads to higher risk of death from COVID-19), and lead. 

In the words of the letter from Inclusive Louisiana and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, “$89,760.32 is not adequate to resolve the problems created when Nucor failed to comply with its permits, nor is it sufficient to deter future violations.” SEC reports show that Nucor Steel LA made $25,067,279 in sales and $2,481,084 in net earnings in 2018 alone. The facility is the largest Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) plant in the world and the only DRI plant in the United States.

Nucor’s parent company, Nucor Corporation Inc., has violated the Clean Air Act around the country in the past and, according to the EPA, “failed to control the amount of pollution released from its steel factories.” The EPA settled with the parent company in 2000 for $98 million for excessive emissions from 14 facilities across the country. Louisiana Bucket Brigade sees this as evidence of how insufficient a 5-figure fine with no additional standards is.

Nucor is planning a new expansion despite this negative press, the Pelletizer Project, which would emit more than their current permits allow (the same permits they regularly violate, that is). Around 200 of St. James Parish’s approximately 21,000 residents live in Romeville, some living within a mile of the Nucor plant. There is widespread opposition, but it’s increasingly unclear where the mind of LDEQ is at in these circumstances.

This comes on the back of BWC Harvey, the proposed Formosa facility in St. James Parish, and a longer, storied history of industrial polluters along the Mississippi River seemingly receiving favorable treatment from the LDEQ. At the very least, there has been repeat questions of mis-given permits and poor enforcement of given permits. 

Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Inclusive Louisiana stress the importance of protecting St. James residents and their due compensation, as well as greater punishments that hold industrial polluters accountable. Their letter concludes with this recommendation for the LDEQ:

“…the Settlement should require (1) a much greater monetary penalty, sufficient at least to offset any financial benefit Nucor received from its failures to meet permit requirements; and (2) non-monetary penalties that benefit the immediate community and environment, which could include: (a) increased and constant air monitoring around the fenceline of Nucor, with publicly-available data; (b) required notification of residents within a specified radius when emergency or unplanned emissions in violations of the permit occur; (c) offers of repairs to nearby homes, cars and gardens in Romeville damaged by particulate matter and other pollutants emitted by Nucor; and (d) other such non-monetary but ongoing environmentally beneficial projects approved by LDEQ that will both benefit residents for the impacts they suffer as a result of Nucor’s ongoing permit violations and also serve as an effective deterrent against further violations.”

The letter also calls for a public hearing with LDEQ on the proposed settlement. The community of St. James has continually shown a defiant spirit that demands a seat at the table with major multinational petrochemical companies. Nucor is no exception.

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