Company pushing to build a landfill on Brooklawn Drive wins another round in court _lowres


A three-way argument has broken out among the owners of an industrial waste site in the Alsen community north of Baton Rouge, a local nonprofit and residents of the area.

In 2007, the owners of the Brooklawn Drive facility signed a contract with a newly formed nonprofit. The intent was for the company to donate money to benefit the Alsen and St. Irma Lee neighborhoods in exchange for building a new site to accept hazardous waste. The funds were to be used to help build a community center, run after-school programs for children and operate a food program for senior citizens, among other uses.

To date, the company, Louisiana Land Acquisitions LLC, has not given any of the money to the nonprofit, Alsen/St. Irma Lee Community Needs Inc. The company's lawyer said that's because the Brooklawn Drive site has yet to open and start making money, and the nonprofit, which originally sued, has agreed to go back to the bargaining table.

Brandon DeCuir, who represents the nonprofit, said he wants to protect residents' best interests, but they "don't want to go bankrupting a company that wants to contribute to the community."

And the latest twist happened Tuesday when another lawyer filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the approximately 13,000 people who live in the area, saying the leader of the nonprofit is not doing her part to represent needs of the the residents of Alsen and St. Irma Lee.

That lawyer, David LaCerte, said it is "preposterous" that Alsen/St. Irma Lee Community Needs hasn't collected any money and, a decade later, is only considering a renegotiation. The contract also states that some funding was to become available once the facility received its permit, which occurred in 2014.

The total amount of the contract is worth about $3 million, LaCerte said. Should the suit move forward and the plaintiffs prevail, LaCerte stands to recoup a third of the settlement.

The contract includes a stipulation that once the site opens the company hire an independent monitor to ensure that unsafe levels of toxins are not being released.

On Tuesday evening, LaCerte appeared before a Metro Council District 2 meeting to pass out business cards to try to get more residents to sign onto the class action suit.  

Part of his strategy involves getting his six current plaintiffs listed as members of the Alsen/St. Irma Lee Community Needs leadership. There were originally three officers, though two have since died. The remaining officer, Sharon Batieste, did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.

Batieste, however, wrote in an affidavit that in July, LaCerte came first to her summer camp, then to her home, refusing to leave until she signed an "engagement letter retaining him to represent Alsen Community Needs against LLA."

"When I refused to sign the engagement letter, LaCerte falsely accused me of breaching an alleged duty to the citizens of Alsen and of allegedly taking inappropriate donations to help fund my summer camp for disadvantaged youths and other outreach projects that I organize for the Alsen community. It was my understanding that these threats were designed to frighten me into signing the engagement letter. …"

Brandon Black, who represents LLA, said LaCerte "came out of nowhere" and tried to insert himself in proceedings where he has no legal authority.

The waste facility operator has asked they be given time to start making a profit before they start paying into charitable programming. The site is still in construction, their lawyer said.

"It's just a hole," Black said.

He said it's unclear when the site will ever open — it could be on the order of months or years.

DeCuir, who represents the nonprofit, said he might seek to move some money around, but he expects the basics of the agreement to remain, just account for the current timeline.

"If they were functional and operational and ready to accept waste, I'd hold them to (the current contract)," he said.

The Brooklawn Drive site has been controversial for years. Environmentalists, some neighbors and former mayor-president Kip Holden all fought against the site.

Wilma Subra, a chemist for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said there have been several concerns: The area is prone to flooding, is near shallow groundwater, and had a poor liner, all of which could cause industrial waste to leach into the groundwater.

"It was just not the place to put industrial waste disposal for the long-term," Subra said. "That community has suffered enough with all the industrial sites and the construction-and-debris landfill."

However, the community was divided, with some standing absolutely against the Brooklawn Drive facility and others willing to allow it in as long as the community was paid restitution, Subra recalled.

"That was one of the most contentious issues," said Marylee Orr, LEAN's executive director.

"We were against it from an environmental perspective," she said. "For public health it was terrible. The whole thing is a bad idea."

Orr also said she always felt a nagging concern the money set aside for the nonprofit would wind up in its leaders' pockets rather than going to programs that would serve the community at large.

The state Department of Environmental Quality denied LLA's permit in 2000 and 2009. It was accepted in 2014 after the company agreed to take waste only from a few nearby parishes, replace the liner and fill in some eroded terrain, said Subra and DEQ Assistant Secretary Elliot Vega.

The contract with Alsen/St. Irma Lee Community Needs Inc. had no bearing on the state permit, Vega said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.