EBR seeking extension on sewage improvement

Disputes in two civil suits in federal court could end with fair compensation for some homeowners in north Baton Rouge trying to flee a smelly sewage treatment plant if East Baton Rouge city-parish officials are granted four extra years to improve sewage systems.

The two outcomes are dependent on each other, according to court records and an interview with an attorney representing intervenors in both cases.

If Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson and the Justice Department approve that four-year deadline extension until Dec. 31, 2018, city-parish officials already have agreed to buy more than 40 homes near the North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant in Scotlandville. Nearby residents have complained of nasty odors for decades.

The intervenors — Louisiana Environmental Action Network and an affiliate, Concerned Citizens of University Place Subdivision — have been blamed by city-parish officials for delays in federally required sewer system improvements. The intervenors disagree.

City-parish officials in Baton Rouge wrote federal environmental regulators in Dallas in July that a Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for completion of $1.2 billion in sewage system improvements cannot be met because of the intervenors.

On Thursday, both intervenors withdrew from the 12-year-old federal court case through which those improvements are monitored. Both groups also sued the city-parish government in Baton Rouge federal court in 2010.

In their 2010 suit, the intervenors alleged that local officials repeatedly allowed improperly treated sewage to be discharged to the Mississippi River basin while working on system improvements required by a 2002 consent decree.

The city-parish signed that consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality after both sets of regulators filed suit over sewage discharges in 2001.

Jackson, the federal judge, this week approved a consent decree in which LEAN and Concerned Citizens ended their 2010 suit against city-parish government. In return, city-parish officials agreed to buy homes from residents living near the north treatment plant and create a buffer zone around the foul-smelling facility in Scotlandville.

Now, though, city-parish officials need Jackson’s approval to amend their improvements plan and extend that work past Dec. 31, 2014.

On July 30, then-acting Public Works Director William B. Daniel wrote the EPA’s Dallas office that the December 2014 deadline was blown largely because of “delays with court approval, third party lawsuits.”

Daniel, who is now Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer, also told the EPA those courtroom problems prevented city-parish officials from beginning improvements to the north treatment plant on time and delayed other milestone projects as much as a year.

Intervenors are not blocking improvements to the sewage system, Adam Babich, a law professor at Tulane University and attorney for LEAN and Concerned Citizens, said Thursday.

Babich noted that both intervenors removed themselves Thursday from the 2001 civil suit. He said LEAN and Concerned Citizens ended their 2010 civil suit this week in return for the city-parish pledge of that buffer zone around the north treatment plant and fair-market payments to the homeowners in that zone.

City-parish officials agreed in return, Babich noted, the federal Uniform Relocation Act will be used to determine the fair market values of those homes. That means none of the home values can be reduced because of the dwellings’ proximity to the sewage treatment plant.

Homeowners also must be reimbursed for their moving expenses, Babich said.

“All of this provides important protections for the people being moved,” Babich added.

The Scotlandville neighborhood is generally bounded on the north by Blount Road and Scenic Highway, on the west by the Mississippi River, on the south by Harding Boulevard and on the east by Elm Grove Garden Drive.