In the Face of Opposition, Nucor Expansion Fails

Louisiana bucket brigade” by is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a grassroots organization that fights for environmental justice in Louisiana, released a press statement Wednesday reporting that Nucor Steel had cancelled their planned “Pelletizer Project” – a major expansion of their facility in St. James Parish. This comes as good news to the members of the local community and environmental organizations that spoke out in opposition to the facility following a settlement with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) that detailed immense air permit violations.

St. James Parish residents, alongside the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and attorneys from Inclusive Louisiana, filed an objection to the settlement because they felt it did not sufficiently hold Nucor accountable for their environmental abuses. Nucor’s facility in St. James Parish has been violating air permits since 2014, including illegal dumping, failed stack tests, and emitting toxic chemicals, like sulfuric acid and hydrogen sulfide. 

Myrtle Felton, a leader at Inclusive Louisiana and a local resident who lives near the Nucor facility, says that Nucor lied to them for years about their emissions and doesn’t know how to fix its present problems, let alone the problems of scale a facility expansion would bring. 

What Felton is referring to is the fact that, by Nucor’s own records, it seemingly doesn’t know how to even solve these emissions. The company has reportedly invested nearly $200,000 into controlling excess emissions from the present direct reduced iron (DRI) plant to no reward. Performance tests as recent as January 2021 show continued permit violations with no clear plan for resolution. The company also has a demonstrated history of inconsistent and inaccurate reporting of permit violations. The facility is the largest DRI plant in the world and the only DRI plant in the United States.

A spokesperson for Nucor, Katherine Miller, claims the decision was “solely a business decision based purely on market conditions.” Miller also stated that, “We will continue to work on improving our operations and building relationships with community members who have concerns about responsible industry in the area.” That said, Miller’s comments might come off too little, too late to those who have been exposed to almost nine-years-worth of illegal emitted sulfuric acid mist, lead, and Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, which causes higher risk of death from COVID-19.

As the opposition letter from Inclusive Louisiana and Louisiana Bucket Brigade stated earlier: “$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.” So far, this is all that Nucor has paid. SEC reports show that Nucor Steel LA made $25,067,279 in sales and $2,481,084 in net earnings in 2018 alone.

The withdrawn expansion project for an iron pellet reprocessing plant was projected at $120 million dollars. The LDEQ was notified of this July 27 when the company asked for a revised air emissions permit. This information was published by the LDEQ two days later. 

Miller’s pro-community comments should also be taken in light of the revised permit requests. Nucor is asking to be allowed to increase emissions of various toxic chemicals, including increases of sulfur dioxide, volatile organic carbon compounds, and carbon equivalent (CO2-eq) greenhouse gases. Some emissions would be reduced, such as PM 2.5 and PM 10, as well as nitrogen oxides.

It should be noted that Nucor’s does not have any permits allowing them to emit hydrogen sulfide or sulfuric acid mist, yet they reported massive quantities of both chemicals being emitted in the settlement. Now they want the necessary permits. Additionally, nitrogen oxides like nitrous oxide have a CO2-eq of 298 (meaning it emits 298 times the greenhouse gases of CO2), so it’s unclear what an increase in carbon equivalent greenhouse gases alongside a decrease in nitrogen oxides looks like. Nucor’s parent company, Nucor Corporation Inc., has a history of Clean Air Act violations and settled with the EPA in 2000 for $98 million for excessive emissions across the country. 

Miller claims the withdrawal was purely “a business decision,” but – perhaps – community opposition is a market force itself. “This is the second time in three years that a major source has withdrawn plans to build or expand in St. James Parish,” said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “Wanhua Chemical decided to withdraw after major opposition, and Nucor also made a decision not to expand. The parish council and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality haven’t stopped a thing. In fact, they roll out the red carpet. It’s the people of St. James Parish who have stood up to protect themselves.”

Members of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Inclusive Louisiana are pleased with the decision to withdraw, but it’s clear that the withdrawal is far from sufficient to meet the demands from their opposition letter to the LDEQ-Nucor settlement. The letter called for both “much greater monetary penalty” and “non-monetary penalties that benefit the immediate community and environment.” There has been no action in this regard thus far on the part of the LDEQ or St. James Parish Council. Additionally, the letter called for a public hearing with LDEQ on the proposed settlement, but the LDEQ calendar does not indicate any such event.

This withdrawal is further evidence that direct action in the realm of environmental justice is effective, but is not a single-issue battle. Rather, it is an extended engagement and environmental justice advocates will have to continue to watch many variables going forward, such as how Nucor’s revised permits are received, their emission levels going forward, and any new permit or expansion requestions. As Attorney Lauren Godshall of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic stated: “The withdrawal of the proposed ‘Pelletizer Project’ is both a positive step for the local residents and an opportunity for DEQ and the community to take a hard look at Nucor’s ongoing permit violations.”

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