Why Worry? It’s 25 New Jobs!

A new industry is coming to Vidalia in Concordia Parish – graphite processing.

Australia-based Syrah Resources selected the port site across the Mississippi River from Natchez for the first-ever U.S.-based plant to turn naturally occurring flake graphite from mines in Mozambique into the spherical form in high demand for electrodes in lithium-ion batteries, which power our cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles.

It means 25 new full-time jobs, at an average salary of $60,000 per year, in the fifth-poorest parish in the state.

That’s the sanitized version, as touted by the state Department of Economic Development this past April 30, when they announced the project .

The reality is far less clean.

This is the third announced location Syrah Resources has considered for a Louisiana plant within the past three years. They started out planning a larger facility in Reserve, in St. John the Baptist Parish, and had even applied to Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for the air permits needed there. The publicly-stated reason for abandoning that plan was “the parish could not provide the water necessary for the plant.” Curious, since Reserve is located on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

Syrah then set its gaze on Port Manchac, in Tangipahoa Parish. Residents, including small business people, and commercial and recreational fishermen, formed the “Save Manchac Coalition”, objecting to the project.

Within a month of the coalition objecting, the South Tangipahoa Parish Port Commission adopted a resolution rejecting the project, citing “the potential adverse impact to the environment, and the public and private nuisance created by the anticipated operation of the project.”

The plant had planned to discharge an estimated 41,000 gallons of wastewater per day into North Pass, and thence into Lake Maurepas, with the company claiming the wastewater would be “filtered” before its discharge.

In Vidalia, the wastewater will be processed by the city’s sewage treatment plant before it is discharged into the Mississippi River.

But there are still valid environmental worries about embracing this “new industry.”

Graphite is carbon in its most stable mineral form, and is closely related to coal. Once upon a time, it was called plumbago, from the Latin plumbum, or lead. We still refer to it as ‘lead” when it’s in our pencils.

And like coal and lead, graphite poses environmental hazards to air, water, soil, and to people’s health.

Graphite easily crumbles into a fine powder, which is useful as a dry lubricant – such as for door locks. But that powder is so fine that it’s also difficult to control and filter. It floats on water and coats every dry surface it contacts, even permeating the weave of fabrics. And like coal dust, it can cause black lung disease.

Additionally, there have been reports that the graphite Syrah Resources will be shipping from its Mozambique mine to the Louisiana processing facility is contaminated with uranium.

Flake graphite is processed into spherical graphite by grinding the natural material into fine powder, then “purifying” it with either hydrofluoric or hydrochloric acid. Hydrofluoric acid is a highly corrosive contact poison, which can cause respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. Hydrochloric acid forms acidic mists that can cause irreversible respiratory, eye, skin, and intestinal damage. And the graphite powder, when inhaled? Respiratory distress, asthma, black lung.

China is the only place – other than Louisiana, now – permitting graphite anode production. There used to be a graphite processing plant in Bangalore, India. The government there forced it to close down in 2012, finding the plant guilty of criminal “life-threatening” pollution.

“Life-threatening” pollution in Bangalore, India. Photo courtesy indiaenvironmentalportal.org

Residents of the northeastern China provinces where the majority of graphite processing is currently done are suffering with lung diseases, while they also see their crops stunted, their trees dying, and the film of graphite dust floating on their rice fields and waterways.

An October 2, 2016, Washington Post article tells – in explicit detail – the story of the environmental toll graphite processing has taken in China. Villagers told reporters of consistent problems created by the nearby plants: “sparkling night air, damaged crops, homes and belongings covered in soot, polluted drinking water — and government officials inclined to look the other way to benefit a major employer.”

Let’s look at the potential impact – economic and environmental – of adding this “new industry”.

The company is being granted a full industrial tax exemption (ITEP). That’s a 100% exclusion from paying parish property taxes for years, plus the option for another five years, at 80% exclusion. That’s estimated to be a $1.5-million tax break overall.

In the meantime, Vidalia will need to upgrade its sewage and water treatment system, which is estimated to cost at least $5-million. And they’ll have to upgrade the hazmat equipment for firefighters, which carries a $2-million price tag. It will be needed, just in case, based on the information Syrah has previously provided to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Syrah’s prior DEQ applications for the aborted locations in Louisiana requested permits to discharge 38 tons of particulate matter, 0.93 tons of hydrochloric acid, 0.52 tons of hydrogen fluoride and 0.004 tons of formaldehyde into the air.

That’s 8 pounds of formaldehyde, 1040 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, 1840 pounds of hydrochloric acid, and 76,000 pounds of graphite dust — all to be dissipated by the winds and settle onto the farmlands, waterways and homes of northeast Louisiana.

Just think: 76,000 pounds of (primarily) graphite dust, wind-blown to settle onto the fertile farmlands and timber stands in Louisiana’s Concordia, Catahoula, Tensas, LaSalle, and Avoyelles parishes, along with the Mississippi counties across the river. In Concordia Parish alone, farm production is currently valued at $116-million per year. How will graphite-dusted gray cotton, gritty corn, sooty soybeans impact that sector of the economy

That dust will also fall onto the surface of Concordia parish’s 75 lakes and dozens of bayous, coat and float down the Mississippi, Ouachita, Tensas, Black and Red rivers, that flow through and around the parish. What will that do to fish and game in the Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge, Red and Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area, Lake Concordia, Lake St. John, Black River Lake, Horseshoe Lake, and the Atchafalaya Basin?

How will the dust, carried downstream, affect Louisiana’s already-vanishing coastal marshlands? How will it impact the spread and effects of the annual Dead Zone in the Gulf?

And although Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft has said, “There was a lot of homework done on this,” as he announced support for the project this spring, precious little has been said about one of the greatest risks of locating the graphite plant at the port of Vidalia: flooding.

In the 1927 flood, all of Concordia Parish went under water. And while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ultimately completed a ring of levees around the parish in the 1950s, they haven’t always held against subsequent major flooding events.

Vidalia riverfront, during the 2011 flood.
 Photo courtesy: LA Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries

In the 2011 Mississippi River spring flood — despite additional higher levee reinforcement, topped by Hesko baskets – put the Vidalia riverfront under water.

In the winter months of early 2016, 10 to 20 inches of rainfall induced flooding behind the levees, as well as on the rivers, requiring disaster declarations and FEMA assistance for recovery across much of northeast Louisiana.

How much water-borne graphite pollution would a flooding event spread– and how far?

And what effect would flooding have on other chemicals used at the plant?

At a May 16, 2018, public information meeting, environmental scientist Wilma Subra, former member of several EPA Advisory Councils, informed area citizens about the chemicals that will be stored and used on the premises.

“Storage tanks at the facility will consist of aqueous solutions of hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid and neutralization tanks containing slaked lime in water,” she said, reading from the specs the company had previously filed with DEQ and the EPA.

Hydrochloric acid, also known as muriatic acid, is used to clean and etch metals, treating swimming pool water, and for toilet bowl cleaners. It cannot be stored in metal tanks, because it is so corrosive. Hydrofluoric acid is also known as the “flesh-eating acid.” And “slaked lime” is another name for calcium hydroxide, also known as caustic lime. It’s a strong alkali, needed to neutralize the extremely strong acids used in this graphite production process.

What happens when those chemicals also join the graphite in floodwaters?

Why worry? It’s a whole “new industry” for us, and it’s creating 25 jobs!

Previous articleBeating the Bengals, Your Week 8 GIFs, and more
Next articleCindy Hyde-Smith Was Not Telling A Joke
Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.