Gramercy Town Alderman Craig Calcagno was at his grandsons' baseball game in Hammond last month when his cellphone blew up.

It was early May, he said, and the Atalco Gramercy plant about a mile from his home was emitting white dust on homes and cars in the area.

"I was getting phone mail?…?text messages and phone calls left and right about it, so I was following through on that," he said. "But when I got home, I really saw the mess all over my house, my yard, my building, my roof."

The dusty emissions, which also filtered into Calcagno's pool, weren't a first for the rust-colored operation along the Mississippi River that is one of St. James Parish's biggest individual employers and taxpayers.

State regulatory papers show the operation has been a focus for years of dust complaints for nearby residents and an area of scrutiny by regulators.

"They('re) forever doing this," Calcagno asserted.

In May, parish officials reported the white dust to the state Department of Environmental Quality, which later reported it reached about four miles west of the plant in Gramercy.

At the time, Atalco officials said they suspected a valve had failed and allowed aluminum oxide, which is known as alumina, to go up a stack overnight, a DEQ report says.

"The aluminum oxide dust (is) visible on some vehicles, plants, and homes in parts of Gramercy," a DEQ inspector wrote on May 4.

Alumina is the primary product of Atalco, which has formerly been known as Noranda and Kaiser though various ownership changes. It is now owned by Atlantic Alumina.

Alumina is non-hazardous as far as toxicity and other similar potential harms. But, state and federal regulators also try to maintain safe levels of tiny particulates floating in air that can enter the respiratory system and blood streams of people and trigger breathing, blood pressure and a variety of ailments over long-term exposure.

In late 2022, the company settled dozens of air emissions problems and related paperwork or operational violations between 2016 and 2020 for $75,000. The company admitted no fault under the settlement.

Earlier the same year, state Department of Environmental Quality officials had referred the company to the agency's Enforcement Division for additional alleged breakdowns noted in a Feb. 1, 2022, inspection that were not part of the settlement of earlier alleged failures.

Since the Feb. 1, 2022, DEQ inspection, the plant has also triggered additional dust complaints, including some from Calcagno, who is in his third term on the Gramercy Board of Aldermen.

The company is currently seeking a renewal of its Part 70 air permit that would allow for some operational adjustments, slightly boost allowed dust emissions, increase toxic emissions and slightly cut a class of compounds that contribute to smog and are carcinogenic in some cases.

For both sizes of dust particles that regulators track, Atalco is allowed to emit around 400 to 430 tons per year. The proposed increases would allow those emissions to rise by less than two more tons per year.

DEQ says company modeling shows the proposed additional dust emissions would not push ambient air standards over allowed background concentrations for the smallest and most harmful kinds of particulates. The concentrations would reach about 91% of the minimum safe level, permit papers say.

The Atalco plant processes red bauxite ore shipped from a mine in Jamaica to its site in St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes next to the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

The only one of its kind in the nation, the plant extracts alumina, the precursor chemical to make aluminum and some specialty chemicals, from the ore. The leftover tailings are dumped in hundreds of acres of leveed-off "red mud" ponds surrounding the plant.

This ore processing is naturally a dusty one. The company is required to have a variety of air pollution control systems and take regular visual checks that ensure dust emissions don't exceed opacity standards, regulatory papers show.

The company also has a third-party marine operator handling the movement of ore from ships to its initial conveyor systems. That operator is also responsible for dust controls.

While processing equipment and marine operations have been the focus of public concern at Atalco, similar ponds of red mud have been a source of red dust complaints in another part of the Mississippi River corridor near the defunct LAlumina plant in Ascension Parish.

More often at Atalco public complaints have centered around the red ore dust, not the white alumina reported in May, records show.

Atalco officials did not respond to emails for comment, including one last week, about the May 4 incident or their operations.

But company officials have said in past interviews that they have been trying to upgrade operations after taking over ownership in July 2021.

A DEQ spokeswoman said the agency has "responded to all notifications that have come from the Atalco site" but didn't say whether any, including the latest in May, had been referred for new enforcement review.

In response of some of more recent complaints from Calcagno and others since 2022, inspectors visited the site several days to a few weeks afterward and reported not finding signs of dust emissions in the air nor at Calcagno's home, or finding red dust on the ground near the plant but of undetermined origin.

Inspectors have raised the prospect that red dirt from a nearby farm is a potential source of the red dust.

In regulatory papers, Atalco officials have told a DEQ inspector they have had regular communication with Calcagno.

But Calcagno, who retired from decades of working for Shell, said he hasn't gotten satisfaction from Atalco officials.

He said he believes the company and state need to be doing more, arguing its status as the nation's only alumina refinery shouldn't give it "a get out of jail card."

"I just ask them why can't they be a good neighbor," he said.

David J. Mitchell can be reached at dmitchell@theadvocate.com.

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