Ascension council calls on PSC carefully eye companies’ environmental records

The Ascension Parish Council called on the Louisiana Public Service Commission to strongly consider rejecting any sewer rate increases for companies not in substantial compliance with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

And if the PSC does grant rate increases to those companies, the council added Thursday, the utility regulator should routinely audit them “to ensure that these improvements are in fact being completed.”

The call to the PSC is the product of years of frustration over what council members see as inadequate funding for sewer treatment in Ascension — despite past rate increases — and, more recently, council member word-smithing after Ascension’s largest private sewer company, Ascension Wastewater Treatment Inc., opposed a more broadly worded resolution.

The council punted on that resolution July 9, which would have applied to any rate increase by any sewer company. Ascension Wastewater is seeking a sizable rate increase for upgrades and backup generators for lift stations.

Councilman Benny Johnson told the council Thursday that the Council Utilities Committee heard from a DEQ official who defined substantial compliance as 85 percent to 90 percent in compliance and who noted no company is 100 percent compliant due to the difficulty of operating such systems.

“There’s a lot of different definitions of what ‘in compliance’ means and what levels of compliance there are out there, and so we wanted to clarify that in this resolution to make sure that everybody understands what we mean,” Johnson said.

The final resolution was adopted 8-1 by the 11-member council. Councilman Bryan Melancon was opposed. Councilman Dempsey Lambert was absent. Councilman Randy Clouatre, who was elected as council chairman earlier in the meeting, did not vote. He replaced former council Chairman Chris Loar, who stepped down due to his announced candidacy for parish president in 2015.

DEQ officials have said that after doing major upgrades over several years under a compliance order, Ascension Wastewater is in substantial compliance. Ascension Wastewater’s attorney Robert Rieger waived the company’s opportunity to speak Thursday.

Before the vote, Melancon said he could not support something that meant the parish would fight a company seeking higher rates to get into compliance.

“I understand some may have gotten it and not used it right, but we need look at ways to punish those guys and not anybody who may get it and then use for the right things and get in compliance,” Melancon said.

Councilman Kent Schexnaydre said he shared Melancon’s concerns but his experience has been that some companies have received rate increases and not used them on what they should have.

While other companies that are doing what they are supposed to should have the opportunity to get rate increases, Schexnaydre added, he feels it is time to stop the companies that are not.

“At some point and time, the parish needs to take a stand,” he said. “We’re responsible for the waters.”

The final resolution also dropped earlier language noting rate increases would hinder the parish’s ability to buy out private sewer systems. The parish is seeking to create a regional sewer system in the Prairieville area with the help of a $60 million low-interest loan through DEQ and wants to buy systems to build a customer base.

That push comes as water quality rules on bayous receiving treated sewer effluent are tightening. For several years, DEQ officials have warned parish officials that some bayous are reaching their maximum capacity to handle treated effluent, posing a potential limit on new development without major sewer upgrades.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.