River pollution at center of warnings

9 firms may be sued by environmentalists

Saturday February 08, 2003
By Mark Schleifstein
Staff writer


A statewide environmental group has warned nine companies and municipalities, including some in the New Orleans area, that they will be sued in 60 days if they do not comply with federal water-quality permits limiting what they can pour into the Mississippi River.

This is the first time the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which represents more than 60 environmental groups across the state, has used this strategy to reduce river pollution. The coalition previously has demanded that the federal Environmental Protection Agency take over enforcement of the Clean Water Act from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

"The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has not been doing a good job of protecting the Mississippi River," LEAN director MaryLee Orr said at a Baton Rouge news conference this week. "The people are taking the Mississippi River back."

An audit released Tuesday by the EPA inspector general criticized the EPA's Dallas regional office for not properly monitoring whether Louisiana's environmental agency was enforcing federal law.

Citizens can go to court to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act when neither the EPA nor the state's environmental regulators are doing so, said Andrew Sockol, student attorney for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing LEAN.

LEAN used records in the state Environmental Quality office to identify companies and municipalities that were dumping too much wastewater in the river. The violations involve disposal of specific toxic chemicals, mixtures of chemicals or biological material, such as human waste, or other materials at levels greater than their permits allowed. In one instance, a company did not file reports of its wastewater contents as required by law.

But Bruce Hammatt, DEQ's assistant secretary for compliance, said his agency already has taken action against most of the companies and municipalities cited by LEAN. "Do I think there's a need to send out these notices? Nope," he said. Hammatt said his agency tracked 7,113 water permits in 2000, the most recent year for which he had information; 234 discharged more than 1 million gallons of wastewater a day. That generates as many as 19,000 reports a month, and the state does not have the personnel or a computerized tracking system necessary to keep up with them, he said. Companies face allegations.

The companies and municipalities, and the allegations made by LEAN against them, are:

-- Daybrook Fisheries Inc. in Empire. LEAN said it violated its permit limits for "biochemical oxygen demand," a general measure of biological pollutants in wastewater, as well as suspended solids in 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2002. "We are not polluting the river," company spokesman Borden Wallace said. He said the plant, which processes fish for animal feed, has been inspected several times by DEQ and EPA officials. "We are legally discharging into the river," he said. Hammatt said the DEQ issued the company a warning letter in December 2001, and more action may be needed.

-- T. T. Coatings Inc. in Westwego. LEAN said it dumped hydrocarbons at more than 4,000 times its permitted limit in 2001 and 2002. A spokesman for the company said he couldn't comment until officials see the clinic's letter. DEQ issued the company a warning letter in April and is considering an enforcement action, Hammatt said.

-- Evans Industries in Gretna. LEAN said it violated its permit limits for a variety of toxic metals and chemicals between 1998 and 2002. A spokesman said he hadn't seen the complaint letter and couldn't respond. When the EPA turned over enforcement of the federal wastewater program to the DEQ several years ago, the EPA chose to maintain enforcement over several companies, including Evans, Hammatt said, so he had no information.

-- CII Carbon LLC in Chalmette. LEAN said it violated its permit limits for chemical and biological oxygen demand, suspended solids, fecal coliform and oil and grease between 1998 and 2002. A spokeswoman for the company said its permit violations did not involve discharges into the river, and that it believes it is not now in violation of its permit. Hammatt said the state sent the company a warning letter in April and is reviewing whether additional enforcement actions are necessary.

-- Honeywell International in Baton Rouge. LEAN said it violated permit limits for a variety of toxic chemicals over four years. A company spokesman said he would have no comment until the company gets the letter. Hammatt said the DEQ has notified the company it faces a $110,000 penalty for violations, including some cited by LEAN, and has issued eight enforcement actions against the company since 1997.

-- Weber Marine in Burnside. LEAN said it failed to file any discharge monitoring reports with the DEQ in 2000 and 2001. The company did not respond to requests for comment. Hammatt said an enforcement action against the company is being considered.

-- Pioneer Americas Inc. in St. Gabriel. LEAN said its dumping exceeded limits for a variety of pollutants, including mercury, several times between October 1998 and July 2002. Plant manager Benny Bennett said each time the plant's permit was exceeded, "the causes were determined and corrective actions were taken on each one." Bennett said the company has no ongoing violations and has monitoring equipment in place to warn when the plant is approaching its permit limits. "We're in compliance with all our permits at this time, and we plan to remain in compliance," he said. Hammatt said the company was issued a compliance order and proposed penalty in July 2002 that includes several of the violations cited by LEAN.

-- Town of Lutcher. LEAN said it violated its permit limits for its sewage plant for biochemical oxygen demand and suspended solids in 2001 and 2002. Town officials could not be reached for comment. Hammatt said the EPA turned over enforcement authority for the town to the DEQ in February 2001, and the agency has issued two warning letters since.

-- Town of Addis. LEAN said its wastewater treatment plant violated limits for fecal coliform, biological oxygen demand and suspended solids between 1998 and 2002. Town officials did not respond to requests for comment. Hammatt said the town has just opened a new treatment plant.

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Mark Schleifstein can be reached at
mschleifstein@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3327.


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