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Reducing flood risk for NOLA: a tale of two minerals

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Editor’s note: The previous two posts discussed the concept of using industrial waste stockpiles as sediment sources to bolster levees in the NOLA area. I had not intended to continue this series but a timely email message from Dallas changed my mind. I was contacted by Lisa Marie Price with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 6, who has been pursuing this concept for several years.

Figure 1: Noranda Alumina plant at Gramercy located between Mississippi River and Manchac Swamp

Figure 1: Noranda Alumina plant at Gramercy located between Mississippi River and Manchac Swamp

I initially proposed considering the feasibility and safety of using two specific industrial waste stockpiles as potential sediment sources for NOLA levees. These waste streams are: (1) red mud, or spent bauxite from alumina production; and (2) phospho-gypsum waste from the production of phosphate fertilizer.

Both of these waste minerals are stored, presumably perpetually,* in huge, ugly and useless stockpiles at riverside locations in south Louisiana.

My second post on this general subject suggested that testing both waste streams may be too ambitious and that perhaps the focus should be solely on red mud. After learning that EPA has been testing both materials I feel vindicated so now I’m back to my initial proposal.

A review

As I have discussed in the two previous posts, Sheila Grissett recently reported in the Times-Picayune that approximately 30 million cubic yards (6 Superdome equivalents or SDE’s) of materials necessary to bolster flood protection levees will soon be redistributed throughout the NOLA area via heavy duty diesel trucks. During the next two years this would add an estimated 50 million miles of traffic-clogging, road-damaging, air-polluting impacts.

The potential to minimize these impacts and to obtain these materials free of charge would seem worthy of very serious consideration by all interests.

Substituting the need to mine “virgin clay” by using waste materials that are currently available conveniently at barge-accessible sites upriver from where they are needed seems an extremely attractive proposition. On the basis of environmental, energy, and financial grounds this alternative would be far preferable to paying landowners to use their deltaic property as borrow pits, resulting in the creation of large holes in the landscape.

Figure 2: PGW storage upriver from red mud storage (note max. elevation of 17 meters)

Figure 2: PGW storage upriver from red mud storage (note max. elevation of 17 meters)

In the following discussion I use the shorthand initials for the two waste streams: (1) RM = “red mud,” spent bauxite or soil from Jamaica from which alumina has been extracted for the production of auminum; and (2) PGW = phospho-gypsum waste, phosphate ore from Florida from which phosphate has been extracted to produce ammonium phosphate fertilizer.

EPA has been exploring a mixture of RW and PGW and early results are quite promising, so my initial proposal to use both waste streams has been vindicated. Here are some of the salient facts that I learned from EPA Region 6:

Q and A from LaCoastPost to EPA re suitability of RM and PGW for levee construction

LCP: How much of each mineral is currently stockpiled and available for levee bolsteriing?

EPA: The Gramercy site, now Noranda Alumina (figure 1) currently has on-plant approximately 120 million cubic yards of RM (24 SDE’s). Just on the Mosaic site (figure 2) there is approximately 20 million cubic yards (4 SDE’s) of PGW. There is currently a total of approximately 60 million cu yards (12 SDE’s) of PGW on the banks of the Mississippi at the various fertilizer manufacturing facilities.

LCP: Because EPA has been considering a mixture of these materials, what ratio of RM and PGW seems optimal for levee construction?

EPA: Based on geotechnical testing, either 100% RM or a mixture at the ratio of 4 parts RM: 1 part PGW seem appropriate.

LCP: How does each mineral fare, with respect to supporting the growth of vegetation?

EPA: RM does fine with a little help from nutrient supplements; PGW supports the growth of grass and other vegetation quite well without supplemental fertilizer.

LCP: What is the position of EPA with respect to the use of these two minerals for levee enhancement in NOLA?

EPA: The agency does not have a position at this time, pending ongoing objective and thorough scientific testing of both materials. If the tests conclude that either one or both materials are suitable and that public safety can be ensured then EPA would support their use, rather than digging more borrow pits.

Federal and state support for the concept of using RM and PGW for NOLA levees

After three years of effort, EPA is showing great interest in the potential for the beneficial use of RM and PGW. On the other hand I am hearing from various credible sources that to date the New Orleans District of the US Army Corps of Engineers has dismissed the subject of substituting industrial waste sediments for expensive high quality clay. I find this attitude curious and unhelpful for many reasons. Meanwhile, the corps continues to face harsh criticism from many quarters, not just with the levee failures that led to Katrina flooding but also to the pace of levee enhancement.

At the state level I am very pleased to report that the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR) is expressing serious interest in the subject of using one or both waste streams beneficially. This has been verified by two recent conversations with a high level agency official whose name I won’t mention so as not to jeopardize future progress.

Len Bahr

*Or until the approaching gulf inundates them, whichever comes first.

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  12. I am gratified by the following response to a reader’s question about PGW that was published on September 24 in the Advocate. The timing of the question and answer are absolutely relevant to this post:

    Q: At the intersection of La. 30 and La. 3115, there is a mountain of white substance that must be a byproduct from a nearby chemical plant. Exactly what is it?
    A: The mound is a 250-acre, 170-foot-high pile of phosphogypsum on a 416-acre site near Geismar and bounded by La. 74, La. 30, La. 3115 and a gas pipeline right of way.

    Phosphogypsum is a minutely radioactive byproduct from the nearby PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer LP plant, which makes phosphate for garden and agricultural fertilizer, according to company and state environmental officials.

    Under state and federal law, phosphogypsum is not deemed hazardous waste, but in 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limited its reuse, requiring it be piled up. EPA has determined stack risks are “in line with acceptable risk practices.”

    Dating from the 1960s, the Geismar stack contains phosphogypsum deposited by other companies besides PCS Nitrogen: Arcadian Nitrogen, which PCS Nitrogen bought in the late 1990s, and Allied Chemical, which became part of Honeywell through its merger with AlliedSignal, officials said.

    Allied Chemical sold the stack in 1984, said Nina Krauss, Honeywell spokeswoman.

    According to a 2006 Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality permit, PCS Nitrogen adds up to 1.1 million tons of phosphogypsum annually.

    The stack, which now holds 18 million cubic yards of phosphogypsum, contains a series of ponds to which liquid slurry is piped and in which phosphogypsum settles.

    Rain runoff from the stack’s inactive area is not treated but discharged into the Mississippi River. Runoff from active parts is reused, DEQ said.

    At present, phosphogypsum results from the processing of phosphate rock mined primarily at the Bou Craa mine in Western Sahara, Africa, and shipped to PCS Nitrogen on the river, DEQ documents said.

    The EPA says stacks of phosphogypsum, which is similar to what is in wall board, have naturally occurring metals and radioactive elements, including radium-226, that can be concentrated by the processing of phosphate rock.

    The EPA says long-term inhalation of radon-222, which results from radioactive decay of radium-226, causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year.

    Dave Bary, EPA regional spokesman, said radon from phosphogypsum stacks are not monitored because the amount released is so small it is not a public health concern.

    The EPA allows the reuse of phosphogypsum for road beds and agriculture but only if radioactivity is low enough. Radioactivity from radium-226 in the Geismar stack is slightly higher than that EPA standard, according to DEQ documents.

    But Rodney Mallett, DEQ spokesman, said the radium-226’s radioactivity is equivalent to background levels in nature and store-bought fertilizers. PCS Nitrogen and the phosphate industry are working to find uses for phosphogypsum, PCS Nitrogen spokesman Tom Pasztor said.

    The stack, which had its 10-year DEQ permit renewed in 2006, reaches capacity in early 2021 and will be capped and planted with Bermuda grass.

  13. Len,

    This does sound like it has some merit. What is the basis of the Corps rational for dismissing the idea? How much does Noranda and other producers want to do this? What kind of proposal and support would it take to push the Corps in this direction?

    Keep it on the front burner.

  14. Terry Clason says:

    Len,
    It is hearting that a good idea has EPA support. Thanks for your reports.

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