A little company on a steamy bayou, Marine Shale Processors, raked in millions using what it said was a revolutionary process to turn toxic waste into glassy black rubble it sold for construction projects.
Last year, it handled wastes from more than 2,500 companies in 48 states.
Meanwhile, residents of St. Mary Parish accuse the company of cancer-causing pollution. State environmental officials have levied more than $5 million in fines and last month halted sale of its black "aggregate." Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) held hearings on Marine Shale last year, and two federal grand juries reportedly have studied it.
This month, the company laid off nearly a fourth of its 400 employees.
Competitors, who call the process a sham, say the end is near.
But Jack Kent, Marine Shale's fiery-tempered president, vows he won't shut down without a long and costly fight. "Anybody with half-way brains would know this is a much better process to handle this material than any other method in the country today . . . or in the world today," he said.
"As far as we're concerned, Marine Shale is on death row. It's just a matter of hooking up the juice," said Richard Fortuna of the Hazardous Waste Treatment Council, a Washington-based lobbying group for Rollins Environmental Services and other waste handlers whose prices were undercut.
Marine Shale began burning hazardous waste in its 275-foot-long kiln in 1985, charging up to $300 per 55-gallon drum to take toxic materials from those who produce them. Kent says that's about half what others charged. It sold its aggregate, as fill for roadbeds and boat slips, for $1 a ton.
"MSP gross revenues for the first quarter 1989 are the highest ever!" boasts a flier in the office. Kent said that translates to roughly $22 million.
Profit ordinarily would run 15%, he said, but millions in legal fees are making a healthy dent. And business has dropped 50%, he said, since the May 26 order banning sale of Marine Shale aggregate.
The Hazardous Waste Treatment Council says the huge, computer-monitored kiln is nothing more than a glorified incinerator. Fortuna said Marine Shale skirted environmental laws by calling itself a recycler instead of a disposer.
Marine Shale countered that it was operating under some of the nation's strictest air and water permits--stricter than those for a Rollins incinerator at Baton Rouge. Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials backed that claim, though the agency has accused the company of frequently violating the permits and is trying to have them revoked.
The state has complained of sloppy storage, violation of air quality standards and refusal to move an allegedly dangerous storage barge off Bayou Bouef alongside the plant. Marine Shale has complied with some DEQ orders and has appealed others, including one revoking its permits because it allegedly treated waste from a foreign country, Canada, in violation of state law.
Company Vice President and General Counsel George Eldredge has repeatedly accused DEQ of delaying administrative hearings on orders, some dating to 1986. Kent is eager to get DEQ hearings over with so he can take matters to court. Miriam Price of St. Mary Parish is just as eager as Kent, but for different reasons. "I see a long road ahead for those of us who would like to see Marine Shale closed. And we're looking to DEQ to do the job."
Price claims a personal stake. Her granddaughter, Nicole Price, is one of six children afflicted with a rare form of cancer, malignant neuroblastoma.
The mother of one child who died from the disease has filed suit against Marine Shale, blaming it for the cancer. Price points out that all six were diagnosed after the company began operations.
Nonetheless, she said, "I cannot accuse them--I have no proof."
A Louisiana State University study of the neuroblastoma cases notes that the cancer is usually thought to originate before birth and that three of the stricken children were born before Marine Shale began operating.
In almost four years of study, the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to say whether Marine Shale has done anything wrong or if it should be allowed to keep operating. "We really can't make additional comments on Marine Shale, because of the legal complexities of the case," said spokesman Roger Meacham.
More than a year ago, the EPA did say Marine Shale's aggregate posed no "imminent or substantial endangerment to the public health or environment."
The state halted sales because of evidence that rain, especially acid rain, could cause lead and other metals to dissolve out of the material in higher amounts than the EPA allows, said DEQ attorney Elizabeth Megginson.
Megginson cited tests revealing lead levels of 0.55 parts per million to 1.5 p.p.m. vs. an EPA standard of 0.5 p.p.m. Eldredge, however, said standards that apply to Marine Shale's product allow up to 5 p.p.m.
Kent said he would not immediately fight the DEQ order in court, but would hold up shipments of the aggregate and try to work out an agreement with state officials to test the product and ensure its safety.
As Marine Shale's appeals drag on, its giant kiln, resembling an elongated cement mixer, continues to turn and aggregate continues to tumble out.
Wastes poured into the kiln are heated to 2,000 degrees for 2 1/2 hours while vapors from the process run through two giant buildings lined with scores of filters and rise into the air through a smokestack 140 feet high.
What's left is a brownish-gray powder. If tests show toxic materials were eliminated, the process is over; the powder also can be used in road building and has been used to soak up liquid waste. If toxic metals like lead or barium are found in the powder--they don't burn--it is blown into furnaces, melted and cooled to form the gem-like chunks Kent calls "Black Gold."
Meanwhile, Marine Shale continues negotiating with DEQ over the complicated issues surrounding its process. If that fails, Eldredge said, "It won't be decided until it gets to the Louisiana Supreme Court."