The private operator of the Jefferson Parish landfill has sent a letter to the state’s top environmental regulator excoriating his agency for what the operator calls “incorrect and misleading public statements” about the role the Waggaman facility plays in the area’s persistent odor problems.

The letter, signed by Robert Nielson, the regional vice president of Waste Connections Inc., accuses the state Department of Environmental Quality of scapegoating the landfill when officials know there are other sources of air pollution along the river.

The letter follows a Dec. 5 Parish Council meeting at which DEQ Director Chuck Carr Brown stepped up criticisms of the landfill. It also comes just days after a fifth lawsuit was filed over the facility’s dilapidated liquid and gas collection system.

“Your agency’s disregard of the facts suggests a bias and agenda on the part of certain agency personnel that must be addressed, particularly in light of the numerous plaintiffs’ lawyers attempting to leverage your agency’s statements for litigation advantage in lawsuits targeting (a Waste Connections subsidiary) and Jefferson Parish,” the letter says. 

A DEQ official, however, defended the agency’s public statements about the landfill, which is ultimately the parish’s responsibility, and dismissed the contractor’s claims in an interview Friday.

“We are witnesses of fact, that’s what we do,” said Mike Algero, DEQ’s surveillance division administrator. “The facts are facts, and facts are stubborn things. My advice to (the landfill) is to come into compliance as quickly as possible.”

Nielson wrote in the letter Thursday that the residents of Waggaman, Harahan and River Ridge who complain regularly of odors that make it difficult to breathe and that burn their eyes, noses and throats are owed a more thorough examination of all pollution sources along the Mississippi River in that area.

“The agency’s improper and biased targeting of (the) Jefferson Parish landfill only delays a solution to the odor problems,” Nielson wrote.

After months of mounting complaints from residents, parish officials in July admitted that a dispute with Waste Connections over who was responsible for the water and gas collection systems had allowed those systems to fall into disrepair, allowing odorous gases to leak out of the completed portions of the decades-old landfill.

The parish has maintained that even though the landfill has its problems, officials are fixing them and it believes the landfill is not the sole source of odors.

River Birch has active landfills on either side of the parish landfill, and there are two closed landfills nearby.

In addition, parish administrators and council members have noted that midstream loading activity has ramped up on the river — particularly at night, when residents tend to report the worst odors — and that other possible odor sources include a wastewater treatment plant in Harahan, the nearby Cornerstone chemical plant, and other tank and terminal operators in the area.

Waste Connections, a subsidiary of which is the main operator of the landfill, has largely been quiet on the matter, other than to say it is not to blame for the sorry state of the landfill. It also commissioned its own study that found the landfill is not emitting significant amounts of methane and hydrogen sulfide.

The company’s letter called that study “the most thorough and scientific to date” and accused the state agency of ignoring it and misleading the public.

Algero, however, said that while DEQ has not formally responded to the Waste Connections-commissioned study, its staff has read it and takes issue with its methodology and conclusions.

“The reason we believe Jefferson Parish('s landfill) is a significant source of the odors is because of the significant amount of non-compliance associated with that facility,” he said, noting that DEQ is preparing what will be its fourth enforcement action against the parish.

“We continue to look at all of these facilities,” he said. “We’re not just looking at the landfill; we’re looking at everyone.”

DEQ points to the documented leakages at the landfill, while Waste Connections maintains there have been no air-quality citations against it for nuisance-level emissions of gases.

Many residents feel the landfill is the principal source of the odors, but they also remain open to the possibility there are others. Some say the smells have a strong chemical or petroleum-based characteristic.

Asked whether DEQ has identified any other culprits other than the parish landfill, Algero said there could be unpermitted spills and discharges, and that chemical plants are legally allowed a certain level of emissions as part of their daily operations.

But he said the persistent smell is from the landfill. He said his office is in Elmwood and he has staff members in Harahan and River Ridge who have smelled the odors and know what they are.

“What they describe is a typical landfill odor,” he said.

The Waste Connections letter, which was also sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards and several other department heads and legislative committee chairs, asks DEQ’s technical staff to meet with company representatives to review its report.

Algero said DEQ would consider the request.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.