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Editorial: Much Ado About Thermaldyne

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Editor's note: I asked Barry Hugghins to write an editorial regarding the Thermaldyne variance after hearing him speak at the public hearing and parish council meeting. Hugghins is a West Baton Rouge Parish Councilman in his second term representing District 8. He has a wife, four daughters and five grandchildren. He has owned a business in West Baton Rouge since 1986 and has lived in the Erwinville area since 1993. 

He ran his business, raised a family with his wife and attended LSU at the same time. He has three Bachelor degrees: a Bachelor of Science in Experimental Psychology from the University of Texas at Tyler, a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from LSU, and a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. He was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key for his work at LSU in Chemistry, named the outstanding Chemistry student by the LSU College of Basic Sciences, and named to the Omega Chi Epsilon Engineering Honor Society the LSU College of Engineering.

During his time at LSU, he researched Vacuum Assisted Thermal Desorption under the supervision of Dr. David Wetzel and Dr. Louis Thibodeaux.

There has been much in the news lately about Thermaldyne, a new company, located in the Sun Plus industrial park, in Port Allen. There have been multiple pages of information sent out by environmental activists, mailed to local residents, as well as a door-to-door “walking campaign” by the same group, complete with an informational hand-out, all of which paints a stark and frightening picture of Thermaldyne, all in an effort to rally local residents to oppose the issuance of Thermaldyne’s final required environmental permit, a “Standard Variance”. 

Sadly, much of what has been said and reported about Thermaldyne and its operations is factually incorrect, and, thus, while it’s very good that folks are paying attention to what’s going on in our parish, it’s bad that mis-information has been used to unnecessarily scare people and get them involved by invoking fear and raw emotions. In order to set the record straight, I’d like to use this forum to address the deluge of mis-information surrounding this new company. 

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) held a hearing in the Parish Council chambers a few weeks back, on September 20. Over two hundred concerned residents attended. At is turned out, the Council chambers were a poor venue for the hearing and totally inadequate to handle the crowd of concerned citizens. Only a fraction of those who attended could get into the room, and the air-conditioning system was completely overwhelmed, making those in attendance quite uncomfortable. And, NO, regardless of the accusations from the local “conspiracy buffs” in attendance, neither parish officials nor LDEQ “turned off the air-conditioning” to try to shorten the hearing. It was just an unfortunate event. 

In LDEQ’s defense, the public hearing required several days of prior advertising, and, once advertised, the hearing venue could not be changed without re-scheduling and re-advertisement. I am told that when the venue was chosen, LDEQ had received only three comments, and, thus, it was reasonable for them to assume that a hearing room that could hold over fifty people would be adequate. Obviously, this was not the case, and, perhaps, the hearing should have been postponed, but LDEQ acted on the best information it had at the time, and those “Monday morning quarterbacks” who are so quick to criticize LDEQ need to remember that “everyone sees clearly in the rear-view mirror”. 

Perhaps the place to start sorting all this out is for us to discuss what Thermaldyne is, and, more importantly, what Thermaldyne is not. 

Thermaldyne is a recycler of a certain, very limited, type of oily material that comes out of any facility (refinery, tank terminal, etc) that handles crude oil: tank bottoms, which are oil contaminated solids (“dirt”). When crude oil is produced, in spite of the best efforts of oil operators, and in spite of the crude purchaser’s stringent requirements, some tiny amounts of “BS&W” (basic sediment and water) are still in the crude. The water is emulsified in the crude and is removed by the refinery as a part of the “desalting” pre-treatment process prior to being refined. The solids drop out in crude storage tanks, and, over time, accumulate, necessitating that the tank must be periodically opened for cleaning. When that happens, these oil coated solids are removed and must be dealt with. The two options available are (1) disposal, and (2) recycling. This is the target feed stream that Thermaldyne will recycle: not a typical “waste”, but 

rather solids coated with crude oil that would otherwise be refined into commercial products, but is no longer available to be processed because it is adsorbed onto a solid substrate. 

Thermaldyne is not a disposal facility. All material that enters Thermaldyne’s front gate will have to leave the site through that same portal. Nothing that enters Thermaldyne’s facility can be disposed of on that site, it is not a landfill. Thermaldyne has neither permits for disposal, nor any equipment or facilities in which to dispose of anything. 

Thermaldyne is not an incineration company. There is no incineration involved in Thermaldyne’s process, and the only combustion involved in Thermaldyne’s process is the natural gas that is burned to heat the desorption chamber and the boilers on Thermaldyne’s process, much like having a natural gas hot water heater, or furnace, in a person’s home. 

Many statements have been made by people and organizations trying to discredit Thermaldyne. Among these statements are that, if the requested “Standard Variance” were to be granted, it would “allow the company to avoid the expenses, and protections, that would be required if Thermaldyne had to “properly” handle, treat, and control hazardous materials.” This statement is patently false and shows a complete ignorance, or willful misrepresentation, of exactly what the permit would, and would not do, that was the subject of the public hearing. 

In order to operate, Thermaldyne applied for three permits from LDEQ. The first permit was a water discharge permit. This permit has already been granted by LDEQ. This permit was necessary because there is no public sewer or “public owned treatment works” (POTW) serving the Sun-Plus industrial park. Any facility (a school, a church, a restaurant, etc) with a discharge, except a single-family residence, is required to obtain a water discharge permit. This covers discharges from sanitary discharges and rainwater discharges. It may or may not cover any sort of “industrial” discharge, but, if there is such, then that discharge will have to meet the same stringent criteria. Thermaldyne’s location is such that any water discharge will find its way to the Intracoastal Canal. The Intracoastal Canal has been declared to be an “impaired waterway. This means that the permit Thermaldyne has received has extremely stringent limits and will be very closely monitored. The fines for non-compliance are increased, and habitual non-compliance will likely result in a permit revocation. Thermaldyne will have to meet the same limits on its waste water as West Baton Rouge Parish Utilities has to meet on the discharge from our West Port sewer plant, or it will have to truck its water off-site. There are no other options and LDEQ will make no exceptions for a discharge that will enter an impaired waterway. 

The second permit for which Thermaldyne has applied is a Minor Source Air Permit. This permit has already been granted by LDEQ as well. This permit is granted to facilities that have been determined by LDEQ to pose only a minimal potential for emitting any sort of pollutant. 

As stated above, both the required air and water permits have already been granted. These permits form the basis under which Thermaldyne must operate. The last permit that Thermaldyne has requested is called a “Standard Variance”. At first glance, this would seem to be an oxymoron, kind of like “military intelligence” or “jumbo shrimp”. As many of us have experienced, when regulations are found to be inadequate, government never seems to fix them, they just find a “work around”. The “Standard Variance” is such a work around. It is a “variance” because it allows a deviation from in-place rules; it’s “standard” because it’s commonly issued to correct situations that the rules fail to adequately address. One could ask, “Why not just fix the rules?” Well, if you get the answer to that one, then let all of us know; it’s 

the federal government. Who knows why they do what they do? In the meantime, we have to work within the system and that’s all that Thermaldyne is doing. 

Waste laws define two types of hazardous wastes: (1) characteristic wastes, and (2) listed wastes. Characteristic hazardous wastes are wastes that are hazardous because they have hazardous characterisitics. They are flammable, corrosive, radioactive, etc. Listed hazardous wastes are wastes that must be dealt with as hazardous because of where they originate, without regard to what hazardous characteristics they may or may not have. The best example of a listed hazardous waste that’s really not hazardous, but must be dealt with as if it is, is oil recovered using a dissolved air flotation separator. If this oil cannot be used in the refinery and must be sent for disposal, or recycling, it becomes a K048 listed waste and must be treated as such, regardless of its actual lack of any physical hazards. The problem with this is that, once something has been declared to be a “hazardous waste”, it, and any products resulting from its processing and recycling are always going to be “hazardous wastes”, regardless of whether or not any sort of hazard continues to exist. The Standard Variance that Thermaldyne has requested simply says that they can accept materials for recycling based on the characteristics of the material, rather than these materials being required to be always treated as hazardous, whether they actually are or not, merely because of their origin. That’s all. It’s just paperwork. In granting the Standard Variance, LDEQ can actually impose any sort of stringent conditions or controls that it may deem necessary, actually going “above and beyond”. Rather than a way for a company to “avoid” or “improperly do something”, as I appreciate it, this could actually make the Standard Variance process an even greater protection of public health. 

Thermaldyne has been accused of potentially “polluting the air with carcinogens like benzene, chromium, lead, mercury, cadmium, and manganese”, but none of their critics can explain where these pollutants are coming from or how Thermaldyne is going to potentially put these pollutants into the air. These are, in fact, things to be concerned about, but, without regard to the likelihood of these items being in Thermaldyne’s feed material, with the exception of mercury and benzene, none of these pollutants will become airborne under Thermaldyne’s operating conditions. As for benzene, on average, some level of benzene in crude oil, but there’s far more benzene, (three to four times as much, on average) in gasoline, so gassing up the car presents a far greater risk of benzene exposure than anything that Thermaldyne might ever do. As far as mercury, the greatest danger of mercury exposure is from compact fluorescent light bulbs, not from Thermaldyne. For Thermaldyne to emit any of these pollutants, they would have to (1) be in the feed material that Thermaldyne takes in, and (2) there would have to be something in Thermaldyne’s process that would allow these materials to escape into the air. Thermaldyne has its own on-site lab, so it has complete control over what it will, and, more importantly, will not take as a feed stock, so these potential problems won’t be present in the material Thermaldyne processes, and based on Thermaldyne’s vacuum process, fugitive emissions will be almost impossible. 

Thermaldyne will employ a “vacuum-assisted thermal desorption” process to separate oil for the sand, dirt or other solid substrate onto which it has absorbed. This process is very much like the vacuum distillation used in every refinery in the world to produce fuels and lubricants. Thermaldyne’s feed material will be heated in a reaction chamber that is under a vacuum. The lowered containment pressure (due to the vacuum) means that less energy input will be required for the oil to vaporize and leave the solid. The vapors will then be condensed, and the liquid oil recovered along with the now-clean solid material. The process occurs at a maximum 

temperature of approximately 1,400 F, under vacuum. Because the process is performed under vacuum, if there is a leak in the process, outside air comes in; the process vapors cannot leak out, and the lack of vacuum will cause the process to immediately have to be shut down, because no production can take place without the vacuum. 

Finally, the Louisiana Supreme Court decision in Save Ourselves v. Louisiana Environmental Control Commission requires LDEQ, when deciding on a permit application, to consider “alternative projects, sites, and processes”. Currently, the alternative to recycling these materials is either disposal, or as a “supplemental fuel” for processes like cement kilns. What alternatives are Thermaldyne’s opponents proposing? I thought that recycling was always preferable to disposal. 

I support Thermaldyne because I understand the process and know it to be safe and technologically sound, not because of “economic development”. I do believe that this project will have a positive benefit to our parish, but there is no benefit that can be worth even one person’s health. If I had any doubts, even ever so slight, about the safety of Thermaldyne’s process, I would not support their project. I have had this discussion with the leader of one of the groups opposing Thermaldyne, pointing out the errors in the information she was disseminating. I suggested that she and her group ask Thermaldyne for a plant tour and that they have a dialogue directly with the company. I understand that Thermaldyne offered this to her and her group, but, sadly, received no response to their offer. 

In closing, I think the proper course of action is for LDEQ to “trust, but verify”, to borrow a phrase from former president Ronald Reagan; grant the “Standard Variance” and aggressively monitor to insure its compliance. As I appreciate it, this is what LDEQ and Thermaldyne are supposed to do anyway, and I don’t think that either party will have any issue with following the rules, doing the right thing, and keeping us all safe, while going about their business. 

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