Colfax community speaks up against Clean Harbors waste disposal permit renewal

Published: Dec. 16, 2022 at 12:56 AM CST
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COLFAX, La. (KALB) - On Thursday, Dec. 15, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality hosted a public hearing for Colfax residents and environmentalists to share their concerns regarding the renewal of Clean Harbors Colfax’s hazardous waste disposal permit.

Clean Harbors Colfax (CHC) disposes of “drum and bulk hazardous waste in liquid, solid, semi-solid, sludge and gas forms.” These materials include carcinogenic chemicals and explosives such as munitions, airbags and fireworks. The current disposal methods are to open burn or detonate (OB/OD) the waste by igniting it on platforms on the facility’s property. The OB/OD process produces loud booming sounds and thick toxic plumes that settle over the surrounding communities.

CHC is the only OB/OD waste disposal facility left in the United States, and residents at Thursday night’s meeting vehemently opposed the renewal of its waste disposal permit.

The first comments came from Colfax Alderwoman Timika Hamilton Price, who spoke on behalf of the Mayor and the rest of the Alder people.

“We stand in support of non-renewal of the permit,” said Price.

The rest of those who spoke also denounced the facility along with its proposed permit renewal, many of them claiming their health issues were related to CHC’s operation.

“I am a proud military person, and the bombing triggers me with PTSD,” said Salisca Larry, a Colfax resident. “If CHC can’t understand that, the people that work there need to move two miles within the radius of CHC and let their family get cancer, let their family wake up every morning and hear the bombings and smell that stuff and let the debris fall on them.”

Jennifer Richmond-Bryant, an Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, is currently working with LSU’s Superfund research program to study air pollution in Colfax. She shared her findings at the hearing and stated that her studies found pollutants in Colfax met an unacceptable threshold and were likely the cause of negative health impacts on the population.

“Members of our center evaluated data from the Louisiana Department of Health from 2000-2017,” said Richmond-Bryant. “Mortality rates were significantly higher for Colfax than for the rest of Grant Parish and the State of Louisiana for all cardiovascular diseases. Our interviews of residents revealed that residents also experienced respiratory problems, skin damage, cardiovascular problems, thyroid disease, gastrointestinal problems and cancer. Using low-cost sensors, we found that, while the average PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) concentrations were generally just above or just below the standards, there were 602 instances where the PM2.5 concentrations exceeded levels considered too dangerous for extended time outdoors, with 63 of those instances too high for any outdoor activity, and 24 instances characterized as emergency conditions.”

Richmond-Bryant continued and gave the conclusions of her study, saying many of the ailments plaguing some Colfax residents would likely remedy if not consistently exposed to dangerous levels of harmful pollutants.

“Several compounds found in our fine PM samples from Colfax are likely associated with CHC operations. Many of these compounds have been associated with a number of the physiological disorders experienced by Colfax residents based on national institutes of health databases. Discontinuation of OB/OD would likely curtail the Colfax residents’ exposure to the compounds that have been associated with health effects that residents are experiencing.”

CHC outlines a plan in its permit renewal request to construct a closed burn chamber system (CBCS) that would dispose of a majority of the waste received at the facility. CBCS units filter smoke and byproducts before being released into the atmosphere as often more than 99% clean air. Those units are the industry standard. Though, the proposal would still allow for around 10% of its waste to be disposed of via OB/OD and give CHC a two-year grace period to construct the CBCS.

Devin Lowell, the Supervising Attorney with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, said CHC’s renewal proposal is not only unacceptable but illegal if granted.

“We oppose this permit as written, specifically the allowance of OB/OD to continue essentially as is for up to two years, while the CBCS is constructed,” said Lowell. “Such an allowance and the loophole that may allow OB/OD so long as the company asks politely first and LDEQ says it’s okay, are unlawful under RCRA, the federal law governing hazardous waste, and violates the public trust duty imposed on LDEQ by the Louisiana constitution.”

Lowell continued by citing the EPA RCRA law regarding OB/OD that effectively bans the disposal method unless no other safe alternatives are available. He also quoted an EPA policy memo that said “where safe alternatives are available, facilities must use those alternatives in lieu of OB/OD.”

“Here both LDEQ and CHC have admitted that there is a safe alternative to OB/OD for the vast majority of waste the CHC treats, the CBCS that is proposed in this permit. At this point, there is no legal justification under RCRA for LDEQ to allow continued OB/OD, not for two years, not for another day.”

CHC falls within District 22, which is State Representative Gabe Firment’s district. Rep. Firment was in the audience on Thursday night and although he did not speak at the hearing, he did grant an interview to KALB afterward. Rep. Firment said he shared many of the sentiments he heard and like others, called for more responsibility to be taken by LDEQ.

“LDEQ has some questions to answer,” said Rep. Firment. “It’s certainly better to go from 100% OB/OD to 10%, but we need to find out if we can get it down to 10%, why not 0?” said Rep. Firment. “We need to make sure there are no loopholes that would allow OB/OD at 100% or at an increased rate during periods of maintenance, or during periods of repair to the CBCS. Someone raised the question ‘are we going to monitor emissions from the CBCS?’ There are so many questions that need to be answered. I’m going to follow up with LDEQ to make sure those questions are answered, but first and foremost we need to make sure the people of Grant Parish and surrounding communities are safe.”

One audience member questioned why LDEQ would consider granting CHC a new permit as CHC has consistently broken the terms of its current permit, and over a thousand public complaints have been filed against it. It was clear the audience lacked confidence in LDEQ’s ability to actually enforce the rules it sets for companies like CHC, something Rep. Firment said needs to be looked into.

“I think we would not be here tonight if LDEQ had been doing its job over the past several years,” said Rep. Firment. “I think that has become evident, not only with CHC but with the situation in Creola, Tioga, with the groundwater contamination from Dresser that has been going on for many years and LDEQ didn’t know about it or turned a blind eye to it. So, we need to find out why LDEQ is not enforcing the laws on the books right now.”

LDEQ will take the public comments into consideration before making a final decision on CHC’s renewal permit.

There is currently a class action lawsuit filed against CHC in litigation filed by the Thomas B. Wahlder firm and the Martzell, Bickford & Centola firm.

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