EBR gets 4-year extension on sewer rehab work

East Baton Rouge Parish officials have received a four-year extension to finish the $1.5 billion sewer rehabilitation program that has been underway since 2002.

The original deadline for the federally mandated parish sewer work was Dec. 31, 2014. The extension, approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and signed by a federal judge late last month, moves the deadline to Dec. 31, 2018.

The change means Baton Rouge drivers can expect four more years of construction work, tearing up roads and neighborhoods to fix crumbling, underground sewer lines. But it also means that construction will be spread out so there’s less of it clogging up the roadways each year.

The extension also guarantees funding will be provided to relocate more than 40 families who live in properties adjacent to the foul-smelling North Waste Water Treatment Plant.

The sewer rehabilitation project, known as the Sanitary Sewer Overflow plan, aims to stop the chronic problem of sewage overflowing back into homes or into streets by way of manholes, ultimately contaminating Baton Rouge waterways.

David Guillory, director of the Department of Public Works, stressed that the public’s health is not being jeopardized by the extension.

He said projects that increase capacity for sewer lines and pump stations will not be delayed, and those are the most important to correcting sewer overflows.

He said the projects that are being pushed back mostly involve repairing broken and cracked sewer lines, which is part of regular maintenance of the sewer system.

According to the new timetable, $260 million worth of projects are now slated for completion in 2018.

Joey LaHatte III, a New Orleans lawyer who represents two Shenandoah homeowners in a lawsuit against the city-parish, said extending the end date of the sewer project was inappropriate.

He said his clients have both “experienced rampant sewage backup problems for years, to the tune of rats traveling into their homes through toilet systems, and one client having to build an outhouse in his backyard to utilize a toilet whenever there is any kind of rain event.”

“We believe the city of Baton Rouge has disregarded its obligations and legal requirements under the federal decree,” LaHatte said. “To myself and my clients, another extension to deal with this horrible problem is absolutely unacceptable.”

The city-parish entered into the federal consent decree in 2002 to fix the crumbling sewer system by the end of 2014.

The initial plan was to build 60 miles of deep tunnels beneath the sewer lines that would hold the sewage and storm water until it could be processed at the plants. In 2006, Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration changed course and decided to fix the existing pipe system.

Officials have said the change of plans, in addition to natural disasters over the years, cost the city-parish valuable time.

Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the rising level of the Mississippi River in 2011 diverted staff time away from the sewer construction work, officials say, delaying the work over the years.

Guillory said the city-parish has worked aggressively to meet the original deadline, but the rapid pace of construction is difficult to maintain.

“It’s the most construction we’ve ever done at once,” Guillory said. “At one point we had over 40 projects going on at one time.”

The deadline extension also frees up funding for the sewer project. The sewer system’s rehabilitation, maintenance and bonds to pay for the construction are financed with sales taxes and sewer fees. So an extension means more time for money to accumulate.

Guillory said the extension provides a “cushion” in case projects come in over budget, and also allows the city-parish to address other sewer work not initially included in the rehabilitation plan.

One project that will be funded is the relocation of more than 40 property owners living next to the North Waste Water Treatment Plant. The residents were embroiled in a lawsuit against the city-parish for more than 16 years, seeking damages from the city-parish for expanding the plant closer to their homes in the 1990s.

Although the courts ruled in the city-parish’s favor, city-parish officials ultimately agreed on a plan to relocate the residents, demolishing the old properties and building a buffer of shrubs and other plants to absorb the odors.

Greg Mitchell, a spokesman for residents involved in the relocation, said he’s pleased that the city-parish is finally moving forward with its plans for the neighborhood.

“It’s been a long while and the community is still suffering from the negative impacts of living next to the sewage plant,” Mitchell said. “We’re looking forward to moving forward in a positive way.”

Residents met recently with city-parish appointed real estate agents who will work with home owners to ensure the relocation fits their needs, budget and federal relocation guidelines.

The city-parish frequently buy properties from parish residents for road and other construction projects, but Guillory said this is the city-parish’s largest single relocation.

The buyouts are estimated to cost about $6 million.

Guillory said relocating families would take six months, at minimum. But for some property owners, who have complicated ownership agreements, the process could take more than a year.

The additional funding provided by the extension allows the city-parish to add additional projects, including improvements to the North Waste Water Treatment Plant, generators for pump stations and technology upgrades.

The extension doesn’t change the working pricetag of the sewer project, which is estimated at $1.5 billion, because the city-parish had already budgeted the additional projects, Guillory said.