Landfill faces fine for fish kill



State could demand thousands of dollars

Wednesday, September 01, 2004
By Paul Bartels
St. Tammany bureau

State environmental officials have issued a compliance order and notice of possible penalty against owners of a construction debris landfill allegedly responsible for a massive June fish kill in a network of canals south of Slidell.

Slidell Landfill on Howze Beach Road faces thousands of dollars in fines unless it can show mitigating circumstances in the incident June 24 and 25, that the killing was unintentional and that the company has made a good-faith effort to comply with all environmental regulations.

Company representatives said Tuesday they think they can make a case for all three factors and probably will file an appeal dealing with the Department of Environmental Quality findings and request a hearing on any fines the agency may consider imposing.

Although dated Aug. 20, Slidell Landfill Chief Executive Chris Jean said the combination order and penalty notice weren't received by the company until late last week. The landfill, a Smith Enterprises company, has 30 days from receipt to respond to most sections of the order.

Failure to appeal or to request a hearing in a timely manner constitutes a waiver of the company's right to a hearing on a disputed issue of fact or law, and the order becomes a "final enforcement action."

The order, signed by Assistant Secretary of Environmental Quality Harold Leggett, says the landfill chalked up three violations of its pollutant-discharge elimination permit:

-- The landfill caused or allowed the unauthorized discharge of inadequately treated wastewater from a construction debris pit via an outfall at the end of a long ditch that drained into several canals. None of the pollution is believed to have reached Lake Pontchartrain.

-- The contaminated water drastically reduced oxygen in the canals, killing an estimated 1.7 million fish -- mostly baby menhaden, or pogies, and some adult mullet, largemouth bass and sunfish -- from the discharge point to North Diversion Canal behind Pine Crest Mobile Home Park on Old Spanish Trail, where the dead-count was the highest, to Schneider Canal and into upper East Diversion Canal to Pirates Harbor along Louisiana 433.

-- At the time of inspection by DEQ officials, the company failed to have on site its stormwater pollution plan and records of estimated flow volume from the outfall. Copies of the plan and records were later submitted to the agency, although the order indicates the stormwater pollution plan was incomplete.

Civil penalties of as much as $27,500 for each day of violation may be assessed, according to Leggett's compliance order, and refusal to comply can subject the company to a penalty as much as $50,000 per day per violation.

The size of a penalty is based, in part, on how much money a business makes. To that end, the department has requested submission of Slidell Landfill's most recent annual gross revenue statement and an estimate of monetary benefit derived from non-compliance.

Other factors are taken into consideration as well.

The agency often threatens alleged violators with fines much larger than the amounts eventually levied and paid, particularly in cases of unintentional acts, companies with a generally good history of compliance, and businesses that show they're doing everything they can to remedy the problems they caused.

"We are continuing to work with DEQ to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure we are in compliance" with the law and regulations, said landfill attorney John King, a former senior attorney with DEQ's enforcement division. "It was just an unfortunate event, and we are continuing to investigate to find out the cause."

A strong point in the company's favor, he said, "is that they have a desire to be compliant, and that's half the battle."

King said the company has a good compliance record for the past four years. During that period, "LDEQ's been out there a number of times and found no areas of concern," he said.

Despite the problems with a former landfill operated at the site by Johnny F. Smith Truck and Dragline Service, DEQ records indicate there have been no violations with the new landfill, which opened in 2000, other than the June fish kill.

. . . . . . .

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

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