A road sign on Airline Highway at Blind River Credit: Tom Wright / The Lens

As a fertilizer production company worked this week to prevent a collapse of its gypsum-walled reservoir, holding about half a billion gallons of acidic wastewater at last report, boaters were still coming to the Blind River, one of the waterways that could be impacted by a potential spill.

Slight lateral movement continued to be reported along the north perimeter, crest and slope of Mosaic Fertilizer’s Gypsum Stack No. 4, which holds back hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater. But the company says the overall rate of movement has slowed substantially since a shift in the layers of clay underneath the stack was first reported on Jan. 10.

Still, it’s clear that some nearby residents are paying close attention to what the La. Department of Environmental Quality describes as a “continuing emergency condition.”

And a local biologist says a release of the wastewater into the region’s wetlands could be a deadly emergency for wildlife.

“It’ll kill stuff all the way to Pontchartrain,” said one Ascension Parish resident, who asked not to be identified, as he visited the St. James Boat Club off Airline Highway near Gramercy. The boat club provides ramps for boaters and sportsmen on the Blind River.

Swamp behind the St. James Boat Club, off Blind River Credit: Tom Wright / The Lens

The Blind is a 23-mile long river that flows northeast from its headwaters north of Convent — and very near the site of Mosaic’s Uncle Sam plant — through the Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area before draining into Lake Maurepas in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin.

Industrial pollution in this river is nothing new. A report by the La. Department of Wildlife & Fisheries notes the waterway — which runs not far from heavy industry in the region — was listed as impaired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006, “due to organic enrichment/depletion of oxygen, mercury, nitrates, sedimentation/siltation, total phosphorus, and turbidity.” The EPA never identified potential sources, according to the LDWF report.

A state advisory, first issued in 1998, remains in effect for consumption of fish from the Blind River, due to high mercury levels in the water. LDWF also lists several fish kills in the Blind, often due to extreme weather such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But one fish kill in May 1996 was attributed to a pipeline failure that spilled 8,700 barrels of unleaded gasoline. That spill led to the deaths of several species of fish, including gar, bowfin and freshwater drum.

The Ascension Parish visitor recalled hearing about that burst pipeline. He won’t fish there “because of all the stuff that got in this water,” he said.

“I go all the way to Gibson” in Terrebonne Parish, he told The Lens.

The Blind River flows northeast toward Lake Maurepas Credit: Tom Wright / The Lens

He said many people do continue to fish the Blind River, though. “A lot of people hunted in the old days and they used to crawfish back yonder,” he said, “and a lot of them used to trap. But there ain’t nothing [for deer] to eat no more in these swamps,” he said.

At least one St. James Parish resident has complained to LDEQ about the potential for the wastewater to get into private residential wells. That resident told The Lens there was no indication that their own well had been polluted, but they were paying to have their water tested, just in case.

Biologist says wastewater a danger to fish, plants

A biologist interviewed by The Lens explained why the river and the region it winds through could be so severely impacted, should substantial amounts of wastewater escape Mosaic’s property and get into the wetlands.

“You’re talking about some pretty low pH’s, which means that the acidity level is high,” said Dr. Phil Bucolo, a visiting assistant professor at Loyola’s Biological Sciences & Environment Program.

The acidity level of the wastewater — 2 to 3 pH — has been compared by the company to that of lemon juice. According to Bucolo, the acidity level itself isn’t necessarily dangerous to humans, when considered alone and not factoring in possible sodium and sulfate concentrations in the water. But fish in this environment simply never evolved to be able to handle such acidic levels of water. They would be badly impacted, as would much smaller animals and even plant life.

“When you’re talking about changes in pH and the lowering, especially at these extremely low pH’s like 3’s and 2’s like we’re talking about, I would say that could have direct implications on cellular function,” he said. “Uptake of roots of a tree that’s extremely close to this — and you’re uptaking pH’s of 2 — I’d say that could be easily death to a larger vascular organism like a tree.”

He noted that, if the amount of water entering the waterways is small, the impact should be slight.

“Just a drop or two of a pH of 2 in the ocean isn’t going to matter in retrospect because of dilution,” he noted. “However, when you have large volumes of extremely low pH water — then it’s changing the groundwater levels to detrimental levels, it’s getting in possible rivers like the Blind River, which can flow all the way into the Lake Pontchartrain Basin. And without dilutions at heavy volumes, these low pH’s can be detrimental to organisms that are reliant on the aquatic nature of the area.”

Wildflowers growing on farmland near the Paulina community and the Blind River Credit: Tom Wright / The Lens

Even farming in the fields nearby could be badly impacted.

“Plants react to soil pH pretty drastically,” Bucolo said.

There are ways farmers can use fertilizers, for instance, to treat their soil for acidity, balancing out its pH levels.

“However, it’s going to be very difficult if you have a large inundation of pH’s as low as 2 that are saturating soil associated with those nearby farmlands,” Bucolo said. “Again, it’s a matter of volume.”

Stabilization work continues

Mosaic, which bills itself as the world’s leading producer of phosphorus-based fertilizers, insisted that it will be able to keep any wastewater spilling from a potential dam failure on its property, which sits on the east bank of the Mississippi River about 56 miles from New Orleans.

A company report Wednesday morning to LDEQ put the remaining volume of wastewater in Pond No. 4 at 543 million gallons, down from 589 million gallons a week ago and about 750 million gallons in January.

Mosaic is moving that water to other, smaller ponds and reservoirs on site, trying to bring the water level in the pond down to about 180 feet above ground level. It was at 184.4 feet as of Wednesday’s report.

The company has said that a breach of the reservoir’s north-facing wall would likely occur toward the top of the wall, approximately 185 feet above grade. Their modeling for a worst-case scenario assumes that up to 159 million gallons might escape over a seven-day period and that such a volume would be held on site by berms and blocked culverts along highways LA 3214 and LA 3125.

A map from Mosaic shows the largest holding ponds at its Uncle Sam plant site

Mosaic said it has enough spare capacity to handle the drained water but continued to work on construction of a new reservoir, the half-billion gallon “East Cell”, to handle additional water, especially in case of heavy rains in the area.

The company is also disposing of about 2 million gallons a day in two wastewater injection wells on site.

“This process water goes through a primary treatment process to remove solids to prevent clogging of the receiving formation and is then injected into a sand formation more than 6,000 feet below the surface,” said Mosaic spokeswoman Callie Neslund in an email statement. ” The wells have been in operation since 2014.”

The state’s Department of Natural Resources, which regulates such injection wells, confirmed it issued 10-year permits for the two wells in 2012.

Such injection wells have raised concerns across the country, particularly in Oklahoma, where injection wells are blamed for increased seismic activity — so-called man-made earthquakes, some of them severe. But not all such injection wells cause such quakes and there has been no indication that Mosaic’s wells have caused any instabilities underground.

At the depths they are penetrating to, it appeared unlikely that such injected water can get into the Mississippi River, along which the wellheads sit.

Stake markings on a Mosaic map of Pond 4

No sign of accelerating movement

Mosaic’s latest daily update to LDEQ reported that survey data show continued “lateral movement” in stakes placed along the north of the perimeter dike surrounding the gypsum stack. That movement averaged about 0.57 inches a day since Jan. 11 at the point that has moved furthest outward from the stack’s center. That maximum displacement was 21.78 inches since Jan. 11, indicating not quite two feet of movement.

There also has been similar movement of stakes along the crest of the stack and the mid-slope of the north wall as well as other spots along the huge, 200-feet-tall stack but less of it at those points.

LDEQ and Mosaic officials believed the rate of that outward movement has slowed substantially.

“The survey equipment being used has margin of error from 0.36 inches to 0.84 inches on any reading,” Mosaic’s Neslund told The Lens. “Daily changes at individual points are usually within this margin of error. Therefore, daily changes should not be taken as absolute values. Nevertheless, over time (several days or weeks), the true movement can be accurately assessed. It is the change over time that is providing evidence that the rate of movement is slowing.”

LDEQ spokesman Greg Langley said the company’s other instruments measuring movement underground do not indicate any accelerated movement.