EPA is investigating Slidell Landfill

Discharge killed fish, state says

Friday, September 10, 2004
By Paul Bartels
St. Tammany bureau

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating a major Slidell area fish kill that occurred after a construction-debris landfill allegedly discharged contaminated water into a canal, state and federal authorities have confirmed.

David Bary, a spokesman for EPA regional headquarters in Dallas, said Thursday that the agency's criminal investigation division has begun its own investigation of Slidell Landfill at the request of state Department of Environmental Quality officials.

DEQ already has determined that the landfill on Howze Beach Road is responsible for the wastewater discharge that killed an estimated 1.7 million fish, mostly tiny menhaden, in late June.

But a Wednesday release from Assistant DEQ Secretary Harold Leggett disclosed that the EPA is investigating the incident. When asked how the EPA came to be involved, DEQ spokesman Rodney Mallett referred a reporter to Bary for further comment.

In the meantime, Leggett said, the agreement between the two agencies means his department won't complete the penalty phase of its "enforcement action" until EPA finishes its probe. Officials were unable to estimate how long that might take.

Nor did they speculate on any likely findings, although DEQ doesn't routinely call on the EPA to look into noncompliance cases, and an investigation by the federal agency's criminal investigation division is considered rare.

"All I can confirm at this point is that there is an active investigation of the incident" by the EPA division, Bary said.

The news appeared to catch Slidell Landfill's chief executive, Chris Jean, by surprise Thursday. He said he was "totally unaware" of any federal inquiry.

"We have not been notified about that at all," he said. "I haven't done anything wrong, so they can investigate all they want. But we don't know anything about it."

One of the landfill's attorneys, John King of Baton Rouge, referred a reporter to co-counsel Robert Habans of Slidell for comment. Habans couldn't be reached late Thursday.

The Department of Environmental Quality says the landfill, which faces possible state fines totaling thousands of dollars, pumped water that had become contaminated from a waste pit into a network of canals southeast of Slidell in late June.

DEQ says the pollution depleted most of the oxygen in the water, killing fish from the outfall into North Diversion Canal near Old Spanish Trail, to Schneider Canal and into upper East Diversion Canal along Louisiana 433, or Rigolets Avenue.

Samples taken by department inspectors show the water above and below the 1.5-mile stretch was clean and officials said there's no evidence that any pollutants reached Lake Pontchartrain.

If Slidell Landfill is responsible for the fish kill, company representatives say, it was an unfortunate accident that the company didn't anticipate and will take every precaution to prevent in the future.

The Department of Environmental Quality issued its combination compliance order and notice of possible penalty to the landfill in late August. The business has 30 days to respond to most sections of the order.

Company spokesmen have said they believe they can show "mitigating circumstances" in the June 24-25 fish kill and show that the landfill has made a good-faith effort to comply with all environmental regulations in its operations.

Despite problems with a former landfill at the site, DEQ records indicate there have been no violations with the new landfill, which opened in 2000, other than the wastewater discharge that allegedly resulted in the fish kill.

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Paul Bartels can be reached at
pbartels@timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2854.



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