This story originally appeared in The Louisiana Illuminator on March 22, 2023. It is shared here under a Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
COLFAX – Sliska Larry read the proposed operating permit for the expanded Clean Harbors hazardous waste disposal site, less than 2 miles from her home, with her 9-year-old grandson at her side. She instinctively pulled him closer, as if to shield him, as she absorbed its details.
“It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Larry said.
The preliminary draft permit, which the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality issued last week, allows Clean Harbors to continue the open burning and open detonation of materials for at least another eight months. The facility disposes of outdated munitions from several military bases, including the shuttered National Guard training site at Camp Minden, and old fireworks from Disney World.
Larry and her neighbors in the small enclave of mostly Black residents just outside of Colfax known as The Rock have reported a deep slate of medical issues, ranging from asthma and allergies to cancer. Many of their illnesses are on the list of presumptive conditions the Department of Defense provided to veterans exposed to burn pit victims.
Larry’s 15-year-old grandnephew is afflicted with what North Carolina State University researcher Jennifer Richmond-Bryant told the family is likely chemical-related acne caused by several harsh compounds found in the burn pit waste streams. The boy’s pediatrician couldn’t explain it, Larry said.
Just recently, after her grandson’s teacher noticed he was blinking frequently and staring fixedly, the third grader was evaluated by a neurologist for seizures. Richmond-Bryant told the family both conditions are associated with the neurotoxins and hazardous gasses in the air they breathe, Larry said.
“The people in The Rock are not dumb,” she said. “We do not accept a permit that allows Clean Harbors Colfax to continue to poison our kids. Would you?
‘The devil is in the details’
Experts in science and environmental law say the contained disposal system Clean Harbors is seeking a permit to build won’t necessarily reduce the harmful emissions. They have reviewed the draft permit and question whether the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) has the best interests of The Rock’s residents and other Clean Harbor neighbors in mind.
LSU-Shreveport chemistry professor Brian Salvatore has been a longtime vocal opponent of the disposal facility, which has operated for 21 years in Central Louisiana. He told the Illuminator the LDEQ’s cover letter on the draft is not reflective of the permit’s true stance on open burning.
“The devil is in the details,” Salvatore said.
He highlighted multiple excerpts from the permit that say the operation of the proposed closed burn system would be “supplemental” to the continued open burning of some waste streams.
In an email to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional director, Salvatore said the exemptions Clean Harbors is seeking from federal emissions enforcement should instead be requirements from the EPA for the company to use available technology to accomplish the clean destruction of 100% of Clean Harbors Colfax’s hazardous chemical waste stream.
Clean Harbors should not be granted exemptions if it willingly chooses not to invest in such equipment, he added.
Colfax resident Terry Brown, a former state lawmaker, also opposes the permit for expansion. His wife has battled breast cancer, leukemia and thyroid issues. Restrictions in the LDEQ draft permit are, at best, a case of far too little, far too late, he said.
“The technology has been around for 10 years. Why didn’t LDEQ make the company install it seven years ago when they started blowing up the munitions from Camp Minden?” Brown asked.
‘It’s not a huge improvement’
There is a discrepancy over how long open burning will continue at Clean Harbors between the draft permit and the cover letter from LDEQ that accompanies it. Both the letter and the permit say that open burning will end 180 days after Clean Harbors accepts the permit. But unlike the cover letter, the permit says contained burning will be “supplemental” to ongoing open burning, and that open burning will continue until the new contained burn facility is up and running.
The draft permit also doesn’t mention potential exceptions Clean Harbors could seek that would allow burning to continue indefinitely.
LDEQ spokesman Gregory Langley did not respond to the Illuminator’s questions regarding the discrepancies.
As with the Illuminator’s previous reporting on Clean Harbors, there has been no response to calls and messages to the company’s headquarters in Massachusetts about the Colfax facility.
Wilma Subra of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, who has been advising Clean Harbor neighbors on the science of contamination, said the draft permit frightens her.
She said the LDEQ would have ideally placed limits on Clean Harbors’ emissions as it transitions from open burning and open detonation (OB/OD) site to a closed process. But Subra pointed to a passage in the draft permit that states “current emissions and OB/OD configuration will remain effective until start up [of the contained system].”
“I’m scared they’ll keep open burning for a long, long time because of the time it will take the company to order, construct and shake down a contained burn system.”
Subra is also extremely concerned about the proposed emission levels of the closed system.
“A contained burn system is supposed to have very few emissions,” she said. “But when you look at what the difference is, it’s not a huge improvement. And in some cases, it’s higher after than before.”
Half of the limits of LDEQ’s six “criteria pollutants” are higher in the draft permit, including the allowable limit for volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
“Those are the toxic chemical compounds that you would try to avoid being able to be released into the air. The levels don’t seem appropriate for a closed burn system,” Subra said.
Slawo Lomnicki, an associate professor at LSU and lead researcher for its Superfund Center, is an expert in incineration. He told the Illuminator via email the draft permit offers little information on anticipated emissions from the closed system.
“Details of emissions of the new system is dependent on the operation and air pollution control devices used. There is no sufficient detail on that in the permit,” Lomnicki wrote.
Subra is also concerned about the lack of proposed smokestack emissions monitoring.
“It could be pushing out smoke like open burning, and there’s no way of monitoring it as it happens, and there’s no alarm going off that says, ‘You’re out of compliance, do something immediately!’”
Subra wants to know why LDEQ isn’t requiring Clean Harbors to stop accepting hazardous waste in the meantime.
“They’re going to be bringing in tons of waste. The limit is on what they burn, not on what they can receive, and I can see when it’s coming close to time [for the contained burning], they’re going to be taking large quantities of waste in because they know they’ll be able to open burn it,” she said.
‘It’s really bad news for these people’
Larry and other neighbors of Clean Harbors joined the Coalition for a Clean and Healthy Environment after its formation in 2015 to fight the open burning. They have been crying out for legislative or administrative relief since the group’s inception.
Coalition members have two primary measures for assessing the proposed LDEQ permit: How quickly the open burn/open detonation operation can be shut down, and how can Clean Harbors be required to drastically reduce overall toxic emissions.
Five generations of Larry’s family live in The Rock. Several relatives have asthma, allergies, skin damage and hair loss.
“We will not stand for it, and whoever agreed to the permit needs to go back and reevaluate it. [Gov. John Bel] Edwards needs to close them down permanently and move them out of our community.”
Pathologist Dr. Stephen Norman of Alexandria has treated several residents who live near Clean Harbors and attributes many of their pulmonary disorders to the facility.
He expressed disgust at the prospect LDEQ would negotiate a permit with the company that would allow another eight months or more of open burning.
“Sadly, we’ve come to expect this kind of thing in Louisiana, which is at the bottom of every good list and is just not taking care of its citizens – especially the Black citizens. It’s criminal the way the state is giving the company license to do this.”
“If the open burning continues, they won’t get better because this stuff is not dose dependent. Any amount is going to cause damage,” he added. “It’s really bad news for these people.”
Brenda Vallee, founder of the coalition, told the Illuminator its members will review the draft permit closely and submit public comments with the hope of improving it. The end of the comment period is May 1.
Some coalition members say Clean Harbors’ cleanup of environmental damage already caused to Central Louisiana’s water, soil, air and wildlife should be a prerequisite for their continued operations.
Coalition member John Munsen Jr. of Colfax said he submitted complaints to the LDEQ the day before the draft permit was released about heavy smoke from Clean Harbors.
“I asked why they never sent out an inspector after one of our members complained about seeing the black plumes traveling from Clean Harbors Colfax onto her property, which legally they’re supposed to do, and the [LDEQ] lawyer acknowledged they’re supposed to do that,” Munsen said. “And then I asked why they’re dragging their feet when they threaten to penalize the company but never follow through.”
Munsen said the lawyer promised to call him back the following week with an explanation.
Salvatore is calling for even more direct interaction with state regulators and hopes the coalition will soon demand LDEQ hold a press conference where very specific questions can be asked and answered on the spot.
“I am tired of playing cat and mouse with people who have proven to be less than ethical and responsible in the past.”
Langley, the agency spokesman, said the LDEQ “will follow our prescribed process and will not be holding or participating in a press conference regarding the draft permit.”
Larry said after seeing what LDEQ’s best thinking is for her community, the only permit she’s looking for now is a “cease and desist” order.
“Not the ‘70% percent of emissions, 180 days and keep burning until they make a new plant’ permit. We do not accept the permit,” she said. “We do not.”