Slidell Landfill blamed for fish kill



DEQ considering if penalties, legal action warranted

Wednesday, August 18, 2004
By Paul Bartels
St. Tammany bureau

Contaminated water from a construction- and demolition-debris landfill near Slidell caused a massive fish kill in late June along a network of canals that flow into Lake Pontchartrain, state environmental authorities say.

At least 1.7 million fish -- mostly juvenile menhaden and some adult mullet, largemouth bass and sunfish -- died because of the polluted water pumped into the canals by Slidell Landfill on Howze Beach Road, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Water samples taken by the agency at Pirates Harbor and near the Salt Bayou channel into Lake Pontchartrain during the June 24-25 kill indicate the pollution never reached the lake.

The fish kill extended 1.5 miles from North Diversion Canal at Pine Crest Mobile Home Park on Old Spanish Trail, where the dead fish count was the highest, to Schneider Canal and into upper East Diversion Canal just above Pirates Harbor on Louisiana 433.

The fish kill resulted from oxygen-depletion caused by stormwater contaminated by sulfur and other chemical agents that leached from one of the debris pits, David Oge, a supervisor in the DEQ's regional office in New Orleans, said Monday. The contaminated water was then pumped into the canals.

The leaching turned the water into wastewater, according to his report, and Slidell Landfill doesn't have a permit for wastewater discharges from the pit's outfall.

Oge described the kill as "significant," the worst he's seen this year in southeast Louisiana. Given its magnitude, he said, he's surprised the agency received only a few calls about it.

The landfill is one of a group of Smith Enterprises companies owned by the estate of the late Johnny F. Smith and his widow, Janice Smith Stumpf, and overseen by son-in-law Chris Jean.

Coastal Waste Services, a Smith garbage- and trash-collection company near the landfill, also has been discharging sewage and other wastewater without a department permit since May, Oge said.

Coastal Waste disposes of residential and commercial refuse at another landfill. Oge, the lead investigator in both cases, said Coastal's operations didn't contribute to the fish kill.

The cases have been turned over to DEQ's enforcement division to consider administrative penalties or legal action.

Agency communications director Rodney Mallett said Monday an "enforcement action" against the landfill has been forwarded to Assistant Secretary of Environmental Quality Hal Leggett, who is expected to sign it soon. Mallet said he couldn't be more specific at this time.

Jean and his chief environmental coordinator, Rick Michaels, said the companies are doing everything possible to comply with environmental regulations. Oge said the Smith companies have cooperated with DEQ.

Slidell Landfill shut off the small discharge pump soon after learning of the problem, hasn't turned it on since then and has built up a levee to contain the water in one of the pits until the agency and company can determine a proper disposal method, Oge said.

Subsequent inspections turned up no evidence of continuing contamination. Samples taken downstream of the site were clean, he said.

The DEQ also received Coastal's application for a wastewater discharge permit July 14. Mallett said the application and alleged violation are under review.

Jean said Monday he hasn't seen the department's reports. "There's been no compliance order, no nothing," he said. "I'm not 100 percent sure (the fish kill) was our fault. . . . If there was a leachate problem that killed those fish, it's not going to happen anymore."

As for the lack of a permit at Coastal Waste, he said, general manager Gus Bordelon didn't know a permit was needed for the drain pipe that was installed to wash off the slab where recyclable materials are collected and sorted.

"Nothing was discharged out of it," Jean said. "We just didn't have a permit. They didn't know."

DEQ inspectors said the situation was more serious than that. Four wastewater discharges at the Coastal Waste site were noted by department inspectors June 30 and the company didn't have a permit for those discharges.

The discharges are from: a 1,500-gallon sewage-treatment plant, the area used to unload and sort materials as part of the company's profits-sharing recycling program with St. Tammany Association for Retarded Citizens, a wash rack adjacent to the maintenance shop, and a storage area for Port-O-Lets, Dumpsters and garbage trucks, according to the DEQ report.

Environmental Quality didn't publicly report the fish kill but released all the documents pertaining to it after The Times-Picayune requested them a few days ago.

After receiving a late-afternoon call June 24 from a Pine Crest resident about dead fish in the canal behind the trailer park, Oge and inspector Carol Petranek went to the trailer park and soon traced the source of the contamination to the landfill, Oge reported.

Landfill manager Harold McCain told inspectors he had turned on the pump from the debris pit two days earlier to siphon out water from heavy rainfall. The water flowed along a small ditch about 200 yards to its outfall intersection with North Diversion Canal.

On June 25, Oge, Petranek and John Calvin returned to the site. Water samples were taken at the discharge point, upstream and downstream.

The water was clear upstream and no dead fish were found. But foam-covered water at the outfall and downstream, where fish were dead or dying, was oxygen-starved and smelled of sulfur, according to field reports. The sulfur smell also was strong at the debris pit.

. . . . . . .

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

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