The two Ascension Parish government bodies have called on state environmental regulators to deny a proposed capacity expansion of a 43-year-old landfill outside of Sorrento that has been beset by odor complaints over the past year and a half.
Several residents, some of whom live right next to BFI's Colonial Landfill east of La. 70, told the Ascension Parish Council Thursday night about continuing noxious odors, blowing trash and concerns about water and groundwater contamination. Council members later endorsed a resolution calling for the permit to expand to be denied.
The unanimous vote came two days after the Sorrento Town Council backed the same document and also during the public comment for the permit renewal and major modification to allow the expansion. The period ends Jan. 17.
DEQ spokesman Greg Langley said Friday the agency would respond to the resolutions along with other comments when DEQ issues its decision.
In a parish where many local leaders have worked in the industrial sector, the resolution acknowledges the benefits industry has brought to the parish and the need to dispose of industrial, as well as residential and commercial waste.
But the document also stakes out opposition to the capacity expansion because of the landfill's proximity to 3,000 people and 25 drinking water wells, its location in wetlands and recent odor complaints among other concerns.
Parish Council Chairman Bill Dawson, who represents the affected area, said he hoped the two votes would get the attention of DEQ, area legislators and Gov. John Bel Edwards.
He said even if the "acute odor problems" are solved, the landfill remains in a 100-year floodplain and in an area zoned for light residential development.
"The location is not good," Dawson said after the vote.
In a statement, Parish President Kenny Matassa said he supported the resolution and spoke with the DEQ Secretary Chuck Brown Thursday and believes the agency will protect the public.
For the first time Thursday night, BFI officials also spoke in public about the recent rash of odor troubles and highlighted uncertainty about their source, while pledging to work to find out more.
"We understand that there’s an odor that’s been happening in the area. It happens here. It happens there. It happens today, not tomorrow," said Karla Swacker, a marketing and business development manager for Republic Services, the parent company over the landfill. "We have not been able to pinpoint the source of this odor and neither has anyone else."
Dawson and other parish officials have been responding not only to the odor complaints but also worries about groundwater contamination and wastewater discharge in the Panama Canal. Some residents Thursday aired fears about whether the landfill has undergone a change in its waste intake.
Gary Schexnayder said he moved a quarter-mile from the landfill in 2003, but he has seen an increase in the number of trucks going in and out of the landfill recently and, with them, a worsening of the smell.
"Up until a year and a half ago, we never had one instance where I could say I smelt that dump, and now it's just, it's horrendous. It's unbelievable. It’s a real health issue, I feel," Schexnayder said.
BFI officials disputed any significant change has occurred with the waste they accept. DEQ officials say their groundwater monitoring has detected no issues at the site and their review of records thus far shows no change in the waste stream.
At the same time, the agency is reviewing a recent batch of wastewater discharges into the Panama Canal that exceeded health and safety limits. BFI has already pledged to better control future discharges.
Despite Dawson's and other council members' strong opposition, some members hinted at having a more open mind should the odor issue get resolved.
"Nobody has anything against what they're trying to do there as a site. It's been there for a long time. It serves a great purpose," Councilman Randy Clouatre said shortly before the vote. "It just needs to be able to manage, in a healthy way, in an environmental way, what they have in front of them right now and manage to prove they can manage that before any type of expansion needs to take place."
DEQ did find a few instances of odors from the landfill earlier this year. Those discoveries led to a May compliance order for failure to cover trash with enough material to control smell.
In late March, a DEQ inspector detected a mild odor from lightly covered areas of the working face of the trash pile where bulldozers were operating, though not near the landfill entrance. Then, in mid-April, the company had a break in a gas collection line that caused severe odor problems, an inspector found.
Subsequent air inspections of the landfill in June found no problems, DEQ officials said. DEQ cleared the May compliance order on Oct. 24.
After the council meeting, Swacker with the landfill company acknowledged those troubles and said she believes people when they say they smell things in the area.
But she cast doubt on whether more recent odors can be traced back to the landfill. She noted there is another landfill next door, as well as nearby sewage treatment plants and truck washing facilities.
"There are plenty of opportunities for odors in the area, so I can't go back and say whether each and every one, whether or not, is actually linked back to us because the data's just not there," Swacker said.
Later, she flatly disputed the landfill was the source of the most recent complaints.
DEQ officials said Friday that they have been conducting monitoring at the landfill this week after another round of odor complaints last weekend. Langley, the DEQ spokesman, said those results should be available soon.
According to DEQ officials, the proposed expansion would increase the landfill's permitted capacity, but not its land footprint, by nearly 27 percent, rising from 24.3 million cubic yards to 30.8 million cubic yards of waste.
The landfill has only used 9.3 million cubic yards of its existing capacity so far, DEQ estimated.
DEQ officials have been quick to point out that the landfill's land area had already been approved under a prior modification and BFI officials are now seeking permission to pile up more trash up on that footprint.
At the same time, the bigger pile would not exceed a previously approved maximum height of 186 feet but much more of the waste pile will end up at that height than previously planned, according to trash pile cross-sections provided by DEQ.