$6 million buyout proposed

A long running dispute between Scotlandville residents living next to a foul-smelling, fly-invested wastewater treatment plant and the city-parish could be one step closer to resolution, officials said.

An item set to be introduced to the Metro Council on Wednesday would authorize the parish attorney to negotiate a $6 million settlement to buy out about 50 residents of University Place Subdivision in Scotlandville and to create a buffer zone between the subdivision and the North Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Residents living near the plant have long complained of odors and sewer flies and said the conditions were unsafe. In 2010, the city-parish won a lawsuit filed by area residents in which the court ruled the city-parish had no legal obligation to accommodate the hundreds of plaintiffs who sued. However, in April 2011, the Metro Council asked the city-parish to devise a buyout of some of the residents, Assistant Parish Attorney Bob Abbott said.

A year earlier, in 2010, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network filed a lawsuit against the parish, alleging problems at the plant. LEAN also intervened in the federal lawsuit that governs the city-parish’s Sanitary Sewer Overflow program, a $1.4 billion sewer system upgrade funded by a half-cent sales tax and sewer fees.

That intervention put on hold the buyout requested by the Metro Council in 2011, Abbott said.

Under the proposal before the Metro Council on Wednesday, the city-parish will allocate $6 million from the SSO project to fund the buyout and construction of a buffer zone around the plant, Abbott said.

In return, LEAN would agree to withdraw negative comments filed with the Environmental Protection Agency objecting to the city-parish receiving a four-year extension of the SSO program — from Dec. 2014 until Dec. 2018, Abbott said. The 2010 federal lawsuit against the city would be settled.

The settlement and revised consent decree is awaiting approval from the EPA and the Department of Justice, Abbott said.

Under the parameters of the proposed agreement, homes on avenues L, M and K in Scotlandville would be bought out, Abbott said.

The city would demolish the homes, rip up the streets and remove the utilities, Abbott said. That would create a buffer zone around the treatment plant, which would be ringed with trees and shrubs that would act as windbreakers and a barrier to sewer flies.

The buyout zone has been extended “about a half-block” further to the north from earlier plans, Abbott said. It would create a 300-foot area around the plant, he said.

The proposal is a welcome “first step,” said Greg Mitchell, president of the Concerned Citizens of University Place subdivision.

“There will still be some things that have to be addressed,” he said.

Mitchell said it remains to be seen whether the “evergreen barrier” would be enough to stop the odors and flies that have plagued residents outside the buy-out zone.

“There are still other people who are going to deal with the human waste odors that are left in the community,” he said.

Mitchell also said residents are going to be cautious after past buy-out plans did not materialize.

“We have been told certain things by the administration and the city-parish that haven’t panned out,” he said. “If we get down to it and find out that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” residents will pursue other legal remedies.

Resident Irma Miller said the settlement of the dispute has been a longtime coming.

“I was among some of the first to be in that area,” she said. “We have been in this battle for about 20 years.”

Miller said quality of life in the area has been greatly hampered by the plant.

“I would be so happy and relieved because we have been battling for a long time,” she said, adding that a settlement would be like “Christmas in November.”

The two councilmen who voted against a buyout last time — Scott Wilson and Joel Boé — said getting the extension for the SSO project made the idea more palatable.

“There have been times that (residents) had a chance to get out of there,” Wilson said. “I am not taking taxpayer dollars to get them out of there.”

Wilson said, however, getting a four-year extension to the SSO program could change his mind.

“I have to see why it’s tied together,” he said.

Boé agreed.

“Fundamentally, I have a significant problem with doing this buyout,” Boé said. “The city has spent numerous years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fees and we won.”

Approving the settlement would be a good deal for the city-parish, said William Daniel, Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer.

“This has dragged on for a long time,” Daniel said. “We believe it’s in the parish’s best interest to have a buffer zone.”

The city-parish was able to build a buffer around the south treatment plant, Daniel said.

“In the operation of a plant, we would prefer a buffer zone,” he said.

A message left on the cellphone of Adam Babich, the attorney for LEAN, was not returned.

The measure will be introduced at the Metro Council Meeting on Wednesday. There will be a public hearing Nov. 28.