State Rep. Paul Hollis says he just wanted to help other Louisiana residents avoid the chronic sewer overflows that have plagued his Mandeville-area subdivision, with raw sewage inundating his lawn.
He planned to sponsor legislation saying that automated reporting equipment must be installed on lift stations with a history of problems that create such overflows.
But in doing research for the bill, Hollis learned something troubling: St. Tammany Parish officials had never reported some of the spills in his neighborhood to the state Department of Environmental Quality, as required by law.
Hollis said he wanted to make sure utilities were making accurate reports if he was going to pursue a new requirement based on that data.
But when he asked DEQ to look into the history of the problematic lift station in the Grande Maison subdivision in a Dec. 8 letter, he learned that five of the six spills he had documented since 2012 had not been reported to the state agency.
"I've got to say, I wasn't really surprised, but I'm very disappointed," Hollis said, adding that he believes sewage overflows are affecting many other people in St. Tammany and possibly across the state.
In a Jan. 4 letter, DEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown said that all sewage overflows are supposed to be summarized and reported to his department on a quarterly basis.
But the agency's investigation showed that five of the overflows Hollis had mentioned in his letter "were not reported as required," he said.
The letter said the spills were from the parish-owned sewage collection system, Tammany Utilities, and that the issue would be referred to DEQ's enforcement division for further action.
Tammany Utilities serves 13,600 parish residents, mainly in western St. Tammany, according to Greg Gordon, director of environmental services for the parish.
The incidents Hollis asked about go back to 2012, but three of them occurred in 2017.
Gordon acknowledged that the parish failed to report some of the spills, though in each case, he said, personnel responded to the incident.
"We did not do the loop-around with the paperwork, and we are going to take our lumps," he said, adding that the parish apologizes for the lapses.
The parish is also changing its reporting protocol and will now report any overflows to DEQ within 24 hours, which Gordon said is over and above what is required.
The parish made some improvements to the lift station in Hollis' neighborhood last month — changes that parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson said stemmed from a meeting with the lawmaker in October.
The lift station now has two new and more powerful pumps, a new electrical panel, a new motor and a grinder, something Gordon said will help in dealing with items that should not have been flushed. Also, the lift station now has an automated dialer that notifies the utility when something goes wrong.
Previously, the lift station had an alarm that would go off when there was a problem. But that relied on someone in the neighborhood noticing the alarm and calling the number posted on the lift station. The automated system eliminates relying on an alert neighbor.
Gordon said the parish plans to put the automated devices on 80 of Tammany Utilities' 200 lift stations this year, focusing on the bigger stations.
He also said the parish began working on identifying deficiencies in the utility system two years ago.
So far, Hollis said, there have been no overflows near his home since the new equipment was installed. But he's still convinced that the problem he experienced is not an isolated one. He heard from many residents after he went public with his frustration on social media.
"We need immediate resolution of this outrageous problem," Hollis said, noting that he'd been putting up with the spills for seven or eight years and had encountered what he felt was a cavalier attitude by parish officials about the dangers of raw sewage.
But he also wants to address what he believes is a more widespread problem. Instead of pursuing legislation requiring lift stations to have automated systems, Hollis said he plans to sponsor a resolution in the upcoming legislative session to create a statewide Sanitary Sewer Systems Overflows Commission to study and make recommendations on how to reduce and eliminate sewage overflows and report on them in a timely manner.