Since winning a court case against providing restitution to homeowners living around the smelly, fly infested North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant, the city-parish has done an about face and now wants to buy them out.
City-parish officials have estimated that it could cost between $4 million and $5 million to buy 47 properties around University Place subdivision north of Southern University.
And after a recent visit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has jumped on board by pressuring the city-parish to buyout the homeowners.
But the buyout is contingent on the EPA granting a deadline extension for the city-parish’s federally mandated sewer improvements program, which is expected to be the source of the funds, said interim Public Works Director William Daniel.
The extension would free up money in the short term to fund the buyouts and upgrades at the plant, Daniel said.
Greg Mitchell, a spokesperson for the homeowners seeking damages, said he and others have been in touch with the EPA since the 16-year-old lawsuit ended in December 2010, when courts ruled the city-parish did not have to buy out or pay damages to the property owners - except to one homeowner.
Assistant Parish Attorney Bob Abbott said EPA officials visited Baton Rouge in July to discuss the North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant with city-parish staff.
“They were talking about the odor and environmental justice,” Abbott said. “They were talking to us about the (residents of University Place) and what we could do about that.”
The Metro Council in April instructed city-parish staff to craft a buyout plan for the residents, even though the city-parish won the lawsuit.
Last month, the staff produced a draft of a plan that would buy 47 properties located adjacent to the treatment plant.
The exact cost of the plan is unknown until appraisals are conducted.
Abbott said the properties would be converted into a buffer zone surrounding the facility with a barrier of evergreen plants that would block and absorb the odors.
Daniel said the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program, which is funded through a half-cent sales tax and sewage user fees, has been identified as a funding source for the buyouts.
But if the EPA refuses to extend the deadline of the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program by three years, there will be no money to fund the buyout, Daniel said.
The sewer overflow program consists of $1.3 billion worth of federally mandated projects to address Baton Rouge’s crumbling sewer system.
The court-approved consent decree gives Baton Rouge until Dec. 31, 2014, to finish the sewer construction work that would keep sewage from polluting the environment and endangering the public health.
The three-year extension is something city-parish officials had asked for before the buyout program was being considered, Daniel said.
The consent decree was put in place in 2002, and work began to build an expensive, deep tunnel system beneath the current sewer system that would collect overflowing rainwater and sewage.
But in 2006, under Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration, the Public Works Department opted to change course and address sewer improvements by fixing the existing pipe system, Daniel said.
That late change has cost the parish valuable time, Daniel said.
He added that hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the rising Mississippi River crisis earlier this year caused staff to be diverted and stalled construction work over the years, which has contributed to the need for an extension.
“It’s a billion dollars of work to be done in a very short period of time,” said Michael Ellis, CH2M Hill program manager who is overseeing the Sanitary Sewer Overflow project.
But even if the EPA rejects the extension, Ellis said, the city-parish will meet its deadline.
“Having the extension will give us flexibility on projects,” Ellis said.
Daniel said the short turnaround for construction also means that the city-parish has to be more aggressive about borrowing money to fund construction, and the city-parish will be paying higher interest rates as a result.
An extension, Daniel said, would also allow the city-parish to fund upgrades to the treatment plant that are not included in the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program.
He said the EPA is aware that without the extension, the city-parish cannot fund the buyouts.
“What we proposed to EPA is that if you can extend part of the consent decree, that will give us the cash flow to smooth everything out, let local contractors back into the game,” Daniel said. “We can (fund the buyout) and we can move up projects improving the north plant.”
The EPA has not yet responded to the extension request, which was sent July 1.
Abbott said he does not know when the EPA will respond to the request.
Ellis said Baton Rouge has presented a “legitimate case” for getting the extension.
“EPA, in my opinion, looks at where you are, and we’ve already had a tremendous amount of progress,” Ellis said. “We already have 91 percent of the program complete, under design or in construction. They understand that we’re fully committed to proving we’re moving forward with the consent decree.”