Ascension panel takes another stab at sewer rate resolution

The lead Ascension Parish panel investigating building a parishwide public sewer system took another stab Thursday at how to warn the Louisiana Public Service Commission to be judicious with granting rate increases to private sewer companies in Ascension.

The parish panel backed away from an earlier, more broadly worded resolution and recommended the Parish Council ask the PSC to focus its scrutiny on sewer companies that have run afoul of state environmental regulators.

Earlier this month, the Parish Council could not agree on a resolution — which noted broad water-quality compliance problems by parish sewer companies — that would have asked for rejection of any rate increase by any private provider in Ascension.

The resolution drew objections from officials with the parish’s largest sewer provider, Ascension Wastewater Treatment Inc., that it would stifle private sector investment in needed sewer upgrades. Those officials were present for Thursday’s meeting and aired the objections again. The company is one of two with systems in Ascension that are seeking major rate increases from the PSC.

So the sewer panel, the Parish Council Utilities Committee, backed a proposed new resolution asking that the PSC strongly consider rejecting rate increases for sewer companies not in “significant compliance” with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The panel also dropped language asserting rate increases would add to the expense of future parish sewer system buyouts, which parish leaders are considering to build up the customer base for a parish sewer system.

In the absence of a public system, the unincorporated section of the parish is served by a few major sewer companies with an array of community sewer plants spread across Ascension.

The new language came after council members on the panel debated whether the resolution, despite its language referencing “many” companies, was actually aimed at Ascension Wastewater.

Council Daniel “Doc” Satterlee suggested the resolution was. But Councilmen Benny Johnson and Randy Clouatre disputed that, saying it was intended to address broader complaints from residents about sewer companies collecting rate increases from the PSC and then not delivering on upgrades that actually improve sewer service and water quality and halt overflows.

Johnson rejected specific language that would exempt Ascension Wastewater by name.

But Councilman Travis Turner, a practicing lawyer, later came up with the “significant compliance” language, prompting head nods by Thomas Pertuit, owner of Ascension Wastewater, and his attorneys, who have been pressing council members on the issue both behind the scenes and in the council chambers.

The modified language came after the panel heard from Cheryl Nolan, state DEQ Office of Environmental Compliance assistant secretary.

Nolan told the group that the largest sewer providers in Ascension Parish, including Ascension Wastewater, are all under compliance orders with the agency. Though it had problems in the past that prompted “very, very candid” discussions between DEQ and company officials, Ascension Wastewater is now “significantly in compliance” after completing major upgrades.

“We are guardedly optimistic,” she said. “What we’re looking for is sustaining that compliance.”

She added that no one is 100 percent in compliance, due to the complexities of running a sewer plant.

Johnson, chairman of the Utilities Committee, said the full council will take up the new resolution next month.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.