hollissewage

State Rep. Paul Hollis stands near a sewage line manhole cover in Mandeville. Hollis says that raw sewage has interrupted the line causing a disturbance in the community.

Sewer system overflows in state Rep. Paul Hollis' Mandeville-area neighborhood spurred the legislator to push for the creation of a statewide panel to investigate sewage spills and figure out ways to stop them.

The Sanitary Sewer Systems Overflows Commission, created during the Legislature's regular session this year, will hold its first meeting at 1 p.m. Aug. 28 at the State Capitol, according to a news release. But many more meetings will follow, according to Hollis, who will chair the panel.

The commission will hold hearings in areas of the state that have the most problems with leaky sewer pipes and troubled sewage treatment plants, Hollis said.

“Experts in sewer systems will be invited to testify,” the Republican lawmaker said in a news release. “The public will be encouraged to voice their experiences, challenges and frustrations."

Hollis said the objective of the panel, which by law will expire March 1, is to create thoughtful, bipartisan legislation in time for the 2019 session that has buy-in from experts and the public.

Initially, Hollis had planned to introduce legislation requiring automated reporting equipment on sewerage lift stations with a history of problems, like the one in his own subdivision, Grande Maison.

But he discovered that five of the six spills he had personally documented were never reported to the state Department of Environmental Quality, raising the question of whether there is good enough documentation to identify the troubled spots.

Reporting issues in St. Tammany Parish have continued to be a source of contention, culminating in a heated Parish Council meeting in May when council members delayed signing off on eight Municipal Wastewater Pollution Prevention reports prepared by Tammany Utilities East, the parish-owned water and sewer system.

Homeowners had turned out in force to complain that the utility was underreporting spills, with Chuck Lamarche, president of the Cross Gates Homeowners Association, saying that only three spills from his neighborhood were included in one document even though there had been six.

The Parish Council finally signed off on the reports at its Aug. 6 meeting after hearing a presentation from Greg Gordon, director of Environmental Services for the parish, who outlined a series of changes he said have been made at Tammany Utilities to ensure accurate reporting in the future.

Gordon said an independent audit of work orders from 2017 found that 54 spills in all were not reported to the state. He said a new work order procedure has been put in place that includes a follow-up the day after a spill happens and monthly reviews to ensure that all spills are reported to the state.

Gordon said the utility has met with DEQ, and there might be some action in the form of a compliance order.

Tammany Utilities has ordered 80 auto dialers that will alert personnel to a problem before a spill happens, he said, and an additional 100 will be included in next year's budget.

Tammany Utilities has also, at the urging of a Parish Council work group, set up a preventive maintenance schedule for all its equipment.

"I don't want sewage hitting the ground. That's not a good thing," Gordon said, adding that the utility has "cleaned up the way we report."

But Lamarche, who spoke at the meeting, urged the Parish Council to get an independent outside review of the report for Cross Gates before signing off on it because of the past problems.

Lamarche also criticized Parish President Pat Brister, who he said had filed an objection to Hollis' bill that formed the state commission. And he raised objections to Gordon's appointment to the panel, which he described as the fox watching the hen house.

Gordon was appointed to the commission by the Police Jury Association.

Other members are Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, vice chairman; Clarence Beebe, mayor of Hornbeck, representing the Louisiana Municipal Association; Pat Credeur, executive director of the Louisiana Rural Water Association; Kristi Trail, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation; Amanda Laughlin, chief engineer in the Louisiana Department of Health; and state DEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.