A legal action that a group of Scotlandville residents filed jointly with an environmental group threatens to derail a $1.4 billion city-parish sewer improvement program that is being conducted under a decade-old agreement with federal authorities, an attorney for the city-parish says.
Greg Mitchell, a spokesman for University Place subdivision residents, said they filed the action because they want the federal court to compel the city-parish to provide relief to residents living next to the stinky, fly-infested North Waste Water Treatment Plant.
But Assistant Parish Attorney Bob Abbott said the neighborhood group’s intervention in long-standing federal litigation over sewer improvements is complicating the city-parish’s ability to work out a buyout of houses located near the plant.
University Place residents filed a legal action jointly with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network in March to intervene in a federal suit against the city-parish stemming back to 2001 over its inadequate sewer system. The suit resulted in a federal consent decree mandating the completion of more than $1 billion worth of sewer work by the end of 2014.
A federal judge granted the motion to intervene on April 19.
At the time the legal action was filed, the city-parish was in the process of getting a federal judge to approve a three-year deadline extension for the consent decree, which Abbott said would have provided a more manageable time line for the city-parish’s busy construction schedule while also freeing up funds to relocate the residents.
“The intervention has slowed the whole thing down,” Abbott said. “We’re still getting calls from people around the treatment plant asking why we aren’t going forward with the buyout — well we said we’d go forward with the buyout once the extension got granted.”
The extension for the consent decree had already been approved by the EPA and the Metro Council and had finished its required public comment period. The federal judge’s approval was one of the final requirements to grant the extension and move the buyout program forward, Abbott said.
“Now that the (University Place residents) and LEAN have intervened in the lawsuit, the judge isn’t granting the extension until the intervention is taken care of,” Abbott said. “The way the intervention reads, he could throw the whole thing out.”
The judge ultimately will determine whether the existing consent decree will be thrown out or amended, Abbott said. The city-parish is appealing the court’s decision to allow the University Place residents and LEAN to intervene in the case.
Mitchell said the University Place residents intervened because they did not trust the city-parish to deliver on its word to pay for the neighborhood relocation.
“We’ve been told that before,” Mitchell said. “Well let’s make it concrete. Let’s be included in the consent decree so the federal government can oversee what’s going on.”
University Place residents have long decried the city-parish’s northern sewage treatment plant, saying it lowers their property values, hurts their health and affects their quality of life because of the stench and plague of sewer flies.
The residents lost a 16-year lawsuit against the city-parish in December 2010, when courts ruled the city-parish did not have to buy out or pay damages to the property owners — except for one homeowner.
The plant was built in the 1960s and expanded in the 1990s. The plant’s expansion sparked the lawsuit filed by residents, Abbott said.
Despite the city-parish’s legal victory, the Metro Council voted last year to instruct staff to craft a proposal for a buyout program for the residents.
The parish attorney’s office and the Department of Public Works determined that $5 million required for the buyout could come from the parish’s sewer program, which is paid for with a half-cent sales tax, but only if the city-parish was granted a deadline extension to allow more money to accumulate.
The city-parish was already in the process of seeking a deadline extension because hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav delayed the federally mandated sewer work.
The consent decree was put into place a decade ago to fix the parish’s crumbling sewer system and prevent sewage from polluting the environment and endangering public health.
Abbott said if the consent decree is thrown out, the city-parish will likely stop work on scheduled projects that haven’t yet been started because it would no longer be able to spend public money on projects that are part of a voided program.
Abbott also said the decision would “introduce a lot of uncertainty into the mix.”
“Speaking from a legal standpoint, what is the incentive for the city-parish to enter a new consent decree when the possibility that some other environmental group, neighborhood group or taxpayer group could step up years down the line and upset the applecart?” Abbott said. “That is the slippery slope that overturning the current consent decree creates, not only in Baton Rouge, but all across the country.”
Adam Babich, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic who is representing both LEAN and the University Place residents, said the city-parish is not in compliance with the consent decree because it is violating federal clean water regulations.
“We want a resolution to that issue, and we’re open to a lot of options,” Babich said.
Asked if his clients opposed the extension to the consent decree, which would have provided a buyout, Babich said, “Right now the extension does not explain why it is necessary or how it is going to help Baton Rouge be in compliance.”
Mitchell said the neighborhood did not want to delay the buyout, but believes the city-parish has the ability to move forward with it regardless of the suit.
“We’re still suffering. But we want everything to be done in a timely fashion and in a fair manner for the whole community,” Mitchell said. “The city-parish constantly finds ways to delay and say one thing and do another. We just can’t trust what the city-parish says.”