SORRENTO — Russel Honoré, the retired Army lieutenant general who is now an outspoken environmental activist, has called on the state Department of Environmental Quality “to do your job” and block a proposed expansion of the BFI Colonial Landfill.
The appearance Thursday night by the leader of the Green Army came as residents and local officials complained about foul odors from the large dump off La. 70, aired worries groundwater contamination in drinking water wells from leaching contaminants, and questioned the wisdom of expanding a landfill that accepts industrial waste even though it is located in a flood-prone wetland.
Honoré said DEQ, which he asserted is understaffed from budget cuts during former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, has failed to enforce the Clean Air and Water acts in other communities and needs to protect people affected by the landfill and other small communities where large corporations have set up shop.
“I know when I’m driving from New Orleans when I pass through Sorrento. I don’t have to look at my GPS because you can smell it, particularly in certain weather conditions,” Honoré told a DEQ hearing officer at the Sorrento Community Center. “I never knew what it was until the issue came up some time ago and citizens asked us to support the effort to block the extension of this waste facility.”
BFI is asking DEQ to allow a change in the layout of a previously approved expansion. The proposed changes include a "vertical expansion" of the new section of landfill, though the company says the landfill's previously approved maximum height of 186.3 feet won't be exceeded.
Landfill and state officials realized in mid-2014 the layout did not adhere to a prior permit, posed problems for final capping of the landfill, and did not leave enough room for a perimeter ditch, leading to a redesign.
Under the proposed modification, nearly 195 of the site's 287 acres would be used to dispose of nearly 31 million cubic yards of waste. The Colonial Landfill, which is owned by BFI parent Republic Services, sits behind the next-door Gator Landfill, a smaller facility that is visible from La. 70.
The Colonial Landfill would continue to accept residential, solid industrial and commercial waste, sewage sludge and minutely radioactive oil and gas exploration waste, but landfill officials also want to add construction and demolition debris. About 5 percent of the landfill's waste would come from out of state.
The DEQ hearing officer and a court reporter were present Thursday to receive comments from residents and landfill employees about the proposed permit changes but not to answer questions. Close to 100 people were present, including several local elected leaders: Sorrento Mayor Mike Lambert; state Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, and Ascension Parish Council Chair Randy Clouatre and Councilmen Bill Dawson and Daniel “Doc” Satterlee.
Though the landfill has been at the site since 1973, neighbors and hunters who use the surrounding swamps complained about a rise in foul, sometimes nauseating and disorienting odors from the landfill since the fall of 2015.
Chad Brown, 50, who lives in Sorrento with his wife and children and is part of a local hunting club near the landfill, said it had remained out of sight and out of mind for years until 2015.
“Since October of ‘15, it became a personal issue. I’ve had numerous occasions of horrible, foul orders coming on to my property from the landfill,” Brown said.
He said he tried to tolerate the smell for about a month, figuring it would pass but it didn’t. Brown said he has made 42 odor complaints about the landfill since late March, the latest being on Dec. 11.
“On at least six occasions, the odors have been in my home. They’ve awakened us at night,” he said.
He said the odors happen most often in early morning and evening when air is heavy and the odors can also be detected while driving on La. 70. He said no one has been yet able to give him an acceptable explanation for the foul smells.
Lambert called for DEQ to get to bottom of the smell. Meanwhile, Clint Cointment, a Gonzales surveyor and former candidate for Ascension Parish president, called on the Parish Council and the Sorrento Town Council to issue resolutions of opposition to the permit.
Dawson, the parish councilman, petitioned DEQ in October to have the public hearing and extend the comment period because of the August flood. He said his analysis of the permit shows the expansion would allow the landfill to take on an additional 9 million cubic yards of waste in addition to the existing unused capacity that can handle another 6 million cubic yards.
He said BFI, if it accepts those 15 million cubic yards, could earn up to $200 million just on industrial waste.
Several BFI officials were present taking notes during the hearing but declined to comment afterward, referring questions to a spokesman who could not be reached by deadline Thursday.
But Lindsey Turtle, an environmental manager working for Republic Services, said during the hearing that the company works closely with DEQ and other regulators to run the landfill in an environmentally responsible way and to minimize odors, including gas and leachate collection and storm water systems. She noted the landfill is located in an industrial area with other facilities that could be producing those odors.