A 2016 aerial photo of the Mosaic reservoir in St. James Parish. Credit: Jonathan Henderson / VanishingEarth.org/Southwings.org

Federal and state environmental officials met in St. James Parish with representatives of Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC Wednesday to discuss efforts to prevent a potential environmental catastrophe in the heart of Cancer Alley: a collapse of a nearly 200-foot-tall wall of mineral waste and the subsequent release of acidic wastewater into nearby waterways and wetlands.

A Mosaic representative at the company’s Uncle Sam fertilizer plant, north of Convent, told The Lens Wednesday that there are 700 million gallons of process water — used in fertilizer production at the plant — sitting atop a vast mound of phosphogypsum just east of the Mississippi River.

Mosaic Fertilizer — a subsidiary of the Minnesota-based Mosaic Co. —  is under a federal consent decree, having agreed in 2015 to pay $1.8 billion to clean up its production waste  — specifically, its corrosive wastewaters stored at eight plants in Florida and Louisiana, including Uncle Sam  — in order to settle a lawsuit by the federal government. Mosaic produces phosphate-based fertilizers for sale on the global market. It’s one of the world’s biggest makers of fertilizers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA and even the U.S. Department of Justice are monitoring the company’s efforts to shore up the northern wall of its process water impoundment reservoir, a large above-ground retention pond.

The state considers the Mosaic site to be in an “emergency condition.” The agency began alerting parish authorities and a handful of nearby residents on or shortly after Jan. 25, according to Greg Langley, press secretary with LDEQ.

“Right now, we don’t feel like there’s an imminent danger of collapse,” Langley told The Lens. “There is a possibility of collapse; no one can say there isn’t. But the company says they have adequate storage to contain that amount of water on site, even if there were a catastrophic collapse. They feel like they can handle it.”

Langley said LDEQ initially took the lead in the emergency response while EPA offices were closed as a result of the recent federal government shutdown.

The Lens requested access to meetings between EPA and LDEQ officials and Mosaic officials, but company representatives said the meetings were not open to the public.

“They’re looking at the site, looking at where we’re draining water off the stack,” said Russell Schweiss, Mosaic’s vice-president of public affairs for land management and mine permitting, in a brief interview at the plant.

LDEQ and the company said that, because of the location of the problem, there’s little chance of the wastewater entering the Mississippi River.

“It’s downgrade to the Mississippi River,” Schweiss said. “It would have to flow uphill or have to be pumped into the Mississippi.”

“There shouldn’t be any contamination of the Mississippi River of some of those materials, or it should be sufficiently treated prior to discharge,” Dr. Brady Skaggs, water quality program director for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation told The Lens.

Wastewater could threaten Blind River, Lake Maurepas

A greater concern than Mississippi River contamination is a potential flow into waterways to the north and east of the gypsum pile. Canals and the Blind River lie in that direction.

“The drainage in that area is northward,” Langley said. “There’s a little bayou, Bayou Des Acadiens — you can find it on Google Earth — and then, from there it would be in Blind River, and Blind River joins the Amite River Diversion canal, very near to the mouth of the canal in Lake Maurepas.”

Skaggs said the acidity of the process water makes it particularly hazardous to people, animals and vegetation in its path, should the retaining walls collapse.

“The acidity of that material is certainly a cause for concern, for both vegetation and fish,” Skaggs told The Lens. ”And the fact that you have Blind River… There are camps and different people habitating that nearby Amite Diversion. So, it could cause significant impact to basically all three.”

Officials from LDEQ and Mosaic said the company is constructing a buttress on the vulnerable north slope of Gypsum Stack No. 4, as the company refers to the failing waste pile containing the reservoir.

Residents meet at a town hall meeting in Vacherie Tuesday. Credit: Tom Wright / The Lens

‘We have to live in constant fear’

Assurances that the company and state officials are handling the situation offered little relief to some residents, who voiced concerns at a town hall meeting Tuesday evening in Vacherie. The small St. James Parish town sits across the Mississippi River from the fertilizer plant.

The meeting, promoted as a “Cancer Alley revival” by a national advocacy group called the Poor People’s Campaign, drew more than 200 people. Speakers drew attention to impoverished living conditions in St. James Parish, home to a range of petrochemical plants and other industries such as Mosaic Fertilizers.

“We are boxed in from all sides by petrochemical plants, tech farms, noisy railroad tracks,” said one speaker, Sharon Lavigne, founder of the local group Rise St. James. “The current crisis with the radioactive, acidic wastewater pond from Mosaic shows how close we live to the threat of a catastrophe. Communities downriver don’t want Mosaic to dump this water into the Mississippi, but we have to live in constant fear that a dam holding in this toxic sludge could break or a tank holding toxic chemicals could explode.”

Audio: Listen to reporter Tom Wright’s interview with David Jellerson, Mosaic’s senior director of gypsum engineering, on Behind The Lens

Phosphogypsum is a form of gypsum, a mineral commonly used in plaster products.

“Sulfuric acid is used to extract phosphorus from mined rock, which produces large quantities of a solid material called phosphogypsum and wastewater that contains high levels of acid,” reads the EPA settlement document.

A separate EPA report notes that phosphogypsum emits radon, a radioactive gas, and also contains naturally occurring “radionuclides” such as uranium and radium.

“Phosphogypsum is very watery when it is first put on the stack,” the report reads. ”As the phosphogypsum dries out, a crust forms on the stack. The crust thickens over time, reducing the amount of radon that can escape and helping keep the waste from blowing in the wind.”

The EPA referred Mosaic Fertilizers to the Justice Department in 2006, after finding that the company was violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act at its two plants in Louisiana and six plants in Florida. That law regulates how hazardous waste is stored, handled and disposed.

The action eventually led to the 2015 consent decree, which requires Mosaic to pay for the “future closures of and treatment of hazardous wastewater at four Mosaic facilities”  — including the Uncle Sam plant — and further reduce the environmental impact of its manufacturing and waste management programs.

Callie Neslund, Mosaic’s public affairs director, explained that the funds would be used for the eventual closure of the Uncle Sam plant, though it is not slated for closure at this time.

An aerial photo of Mosaic’s Gypsum Stack No. 4 from 2016. Credit: Jonathan Henderson / VanishingEarth.org/Southwings.org

“The 60 billion pounds of hazardous waste addressed in this case is the largest amount ever covered by a federal or state RCRA settlement and will ensure that wastewater at Mosaic’s facilities is properly managed and does not pose a threat to groundwater resources,” read a 2015 EPA news release, after the consent decree was finalized.

The government alleged that Mosaic failed to properly treat, store and dispose of that waste. “EPA inspections revealed that Mosaic was mixing certain types of highly-corrosive substances from its fertilizer operations, which qualify as hazardous waste, with the phosphogypsum and wastewater from mineral processing, which is a violation of federal and state hazardous waste laws,” the agency said in its statement.

A review of EPA records found that Mosaic remains listed as a “significant noncomplier” with the RCRA as a result of the federal court action.

Cause of failure under investigation

A bulge in some neighboring farmland is what first raised the alarm at Mosaic.

“There’s a cane field there and back in December, there’s a farmer there who leases that land and he had a cane crop in,” Langley said. “That sort of disguised what was going on in the field. And once the cane was harvested, late in December and early January, it revealed that bulge.”

He described it as “an uplift in the field, where the weight of that stack was pushing down on the soil underneath.”

The company initially alerted state and federal authorities in a Jan. 10 letter to LDEQ and EPA, issuing a “Condition Critical Notice” in compliance with the consent decree.

Buttressing the slope, against the bottom portion of the levee, is expected to act as a counterweight to that uplift. Workers were spotted Wednesday on the north slope, working on that buttress.

A westward view of the phosphogypsum stack, rising about 200 feet high over neighboring cane fields. Credit: Tom Wright / The Lens

An initial Mosaic statement to news media said that the company had taken action in “connection with slow lateral movement of a side slope on the site’s active phosphogypsum stack. No environmental impacts have occurred as a result of this geological event.”

Asked why the wall started to move, Neslund told us a “shear plane” — essentially, uneven soil caused by compression — had been identified about 95 feet below the natural ground.

“Our focus now is stabilizing the slope,” she said. “Once the slope is stabilized, we will shift our focus to determining a root cause.”

LDEQ indicated it too would look further into causes after the situation at the pile has stabilized.

“We feel like the weight of the water is an issue,” Langley said. “The company is in agreement and they’re moving the water to other areas on the site. It is a lot of water and it takes a while.”

Mosaic crews are pumping about 10 million to 20 million gallons of water a day out of Stack No. 4 and into other ponds at the Uncle Sam site.

“They’re bringing it down at a rate now to where we expect it will probably, within a week or two… [move] a 100 million gallons off it,” Schweiss said Wednesday.

LDEQ said this particular stack of phosphogypsum was originally built in 1993. It spans about 139 acres, is 30 to 40 feet deep and could hold as much as 1 billion gallons.

Langley said this manner of storing such a large amount of wastewater is compliant with the 2015 consent decree.

“This is how they — fertilizer manufacturers — do this,” he said. “They have large reservoirs of process water which is cycled back through and they use it again in their process. Normally that results in a net loss of water because they use more in the process. … It evaporates, it heats and evaporates. They use more than they emit in the process.”

He said heavy rains recently added to the reservoir and the weight of water pressing down on the earth underneath.

Skaggs, from the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said stormwater itself becomes contaminated when it comes in contact with such wastewater.

“You have to further, in some cases, treat that stormwater to get it to a water quality that is sufficient for discharge,” Dr. Skaggs said. “Holding that stormwater or that process water on site and either further treating it or disposing of it. … Those are things that usually have a much smaller environmental impact than discharge into surface water.”

But treatment has to happen fairly quickly or more water can build up, Skaggs added, “particularly if there’s significant rainfall like we’ve come to experience in southeast Louisiana.”