The Donaldsonville Nitrogen Complex spans 1,400 acres along the west bank of the Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana. Owned by Illinois-based CF Industries, it is the largest fertilizer plant in the world, capable of transforming natural gas into eight million tons of ammonia and other nitrogen products a year, which are spread on farm fields to feed crops.
It is also the state’s largest source of greenhouse gases and toxic air and water pollution. The plant is responsible for 185 accidental releases of chemicals since 2006 into a neighborhood that is three quarters Black or Latino, with more than half of local households earning less than $25,000 per year, according to federal and state records.
Despite the plant’s poor environmental record and the harm to the local community, CF Industries is planning a major expansion into an area that is already so burdened with pollution it is nicknamed "Cancer Alley." The company has announced plans for three expansions at the Donaldsonville complex, including a project that would increase production of nitric acid—a highly corrosive chemical. And the company is planning to build three new ammonia plants just a few miles north in Ascension Parish.
The rapid growth is potentially worrisome, because the rate of accidents at the Donaldsonville Nitrogen Complex has risen significantly over the past three years. At least 15 accidental chemical releases have been attributed to CF Industries every year since 2020, according to data from the National Response Center (NRC). For comparison, the company averaged around six incidents a year between 2006 and 2019.
The majority of these releases were of ammonia, which can irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs, and has been attributed to asthma and respiratory failure when inhaled. In December 2022, an ammonia leak at the plant forced the closure of a public elementary school and shut down two local highways for hours, according to local news reports.
CF Industries did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the plant’s safety record, but Morris Johnson, the plant’s general manager, issued a statement last year, stating that “our primary focus is always on the safety of our employees, our neighbors and the environment.”
At least three public schools and a nursing home are located within three miles of the Donaldsonville Nitrogen Complex, where people of color make up 76 percent of the local population, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmental Justice Screening Tool.
Despite the company’s poor track record, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has imposed only $5,000 in penalties for environmental violations over the past five years. During that time, CF Industries reported 338 accidents to the state, according to EIP’s review of government records available through Louisiana’s Electronic Data Management System. These state incident reports include hundreds of ammonia releases that are below the “reportable quantity” of 100 pounds but could cumulatively cause significant impacts to human health and the environment, including Louisiana’s wetlands.
The penalties were a drop in the bucket for a company that reported more than $3 billion in net earnings in 2022.
In addition to accidental releases, the Donaldsonville Nitrogen Complex emits an enormous amount of air pollution through day-to-day operations. It has remained Louisiana’s largest greenhouse gas emitter for the past eight years, reporting roughly 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2022, according to EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. That’s more than two coal-fired power plants, or enough electricity to power every home in Phoenix or Philadelphia.
The Donaldsonville Complex is also the state’s largest emitter of toxic chemicals to the air or water, according to EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. The facility released over 8.2 million pounds of toxic pollutants into the air and over 1.9 million pounds of toxic pollutants to surface waters in 2022, including ammonia and ammonia compounds, caustic chemicals like chlorine and sulfuric acid, and carcinogens like formaldehyde.
Despite the company’s outsized environmental footprint, the state of Louisiana has awarded nearly $800 million in state and local subsidies to CF Industries over the past decade. Two additional applications for subsidies under the states’ Industrial Tax Exemption program are currently pending.
CF Industries has announced plans to develop three new ammonia plants just a few miles north of the Donaldsonville Complex in Ascension Parish.
Last year the company announced plans to partner with the Japanese Mitsui & Co. to build the Blue Point Complex, a 1.5 million ton per year ammonia production facility that would be equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology. According to the companies, the new plant will be able to capture up to 2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, which would be transported by a new carbon pipeline being built by EnLink and sequestered by ExxonMobil at their proposed Pecan Island carbon capture hub in Louisiana’s Vermillion Parish.
CF Industries recently applied for a Clean Air Act permit to build the Blue Point facility, which could emit up to 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases and 559 tons of criteria air pollutants each year, according to their application.
A few months later, in February 2023, CF Industries announced a partnership with South Korea’s LOTTE Chemical Corp. to build another ammonia plant at the same site. That announcement was followed by another in September 2023, this time with the South Korean company POSCO Holdings.
While few details about these projects have been disclosed, both would make ammonia for use as fuel or for the storage and production of hydrogen fuel. (Ammonia, or NH3, contains three hydrogen atoms, which can be separated to produce hydrogen.) The ammonia fuel would be exported to South Korea, which is expected to import 7 million metric tons per year of ammonia by 2040.
In addition to these upstream expansions, CF Industries is also planning three expansions at the Donaldsonville complex, including a project that would increase production of nitric acid—a highly corrosive chemical that’s used to make fertilizers, explosives, and nylon—by 600,000 tons annually. The company is also planning a project to produce 20,000 tons per year of “green” ammonia, which is produced with renewable electricity (not natural gas), as well as deionized water, and atmospheric nitrogen. CF Industries is also planning to install carbon capture equipment at the existing Donaldsonville site, which is expected by 2024.