The realities of Ascension’s push toward parish-wide sewer have set in and certain elected officials, a lame duck parish president among them, have concluded that only a public/private partnership might realize the lofty ambition. Parish President Tommy Martinez told four members of the Utilities Committee as much last Wednesday. And then there is that $60 million low-interest DEQ loan which could be jeopardized if Ascension fails to settle on a site for a sewer treatment plant.
“Basically we’re telling these people they have to give us their systems,” Martinez interpreted a recently adopted ordinance requiring residents within 300 feet of newly installed parish sewer lines along Hwy 42 and Hwy 73 to tie in. “So we take the systems and we don’t have our sewer plant ready.”
“At this point we have no place to put the plant.”
Martinez thought he had resolved the deficiency last December 4 when the Parish Council authorized O’Neil Parenton, its legal counsel, to negotiate with L. J. Grezaffi to acquire 10 acres near the Hwy 73/Hwy 30 intersection in Geismar. That authorization was made as part of the council’s consent agenda and no member raised any objection.
“As soon as we settled on that piece of property, a group of citizens opposed it,” Parenton informed the Utilities Committee.
That group met at First Pilgrim Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Geismar on December 22 to voice their opposition to locating the treatment plant nearby. Three Ascension Parish Council members joined them.
“We don’t want this here and they (the council members in attendance) are with you 100%,” Reverend Irvin Briley introduced those council members to his flock.
The council members took turns in Briley’s pulpit.
“The site is only one area that is being considered. The three council members here oppose it,” Councilman Travis Turner assured his District 3 constituents that evening.
The Grezaffi property also lies within Turner’s district.
Councilwoman Teri Casso, whose District 8 lies just north of Geismar along Hwy 73, joined the chorus.
“This representative of District 8 will not support this proposal which will affect you so directly when you are already so put upon by the petrochemical industry,” Casso promised Travis Turner’s constituents. “The treatment plant won’t be built here if we have anything to say about it; and we’ll have a lot to say about it.”
Chris Loar’s District 7 is situated hard against Ascension’s northern boundary, Bayou Manchac, which happens to be the single most contaminated waterway in the parish. Loar is also a candidate to su4724eed President Martinez this fall.
“I know how important this is to all of you who came out on the week of Christmas,” he assured Turner’s constituents. “I want you to know it’s important to me too. It’s important that we get this right and I don’t think this is the right place to build it.”
Loar opined that “no viable business plan” existed and the treatment plant should be situated closer to the Mississippi River. He claimed that “abundant vacant acreage” was available which was adjacent to the river.
That may have been the case three months ago but no longer.
Ideally, Ascension’s treatment plant would be built adjacent to the mighty Mississippi into which treated sewage effluent would be discharged. Water volume and current strength would render the environmentally threatening effluent harmless.
“We’ve looked at every possible parcel of land from the river back to Hwy 74 and nobody is selling,” President Martinez offered.
BASF donated over 40 acres near Lamar Dixon several years ago intended as part of Ascension’s sewer plan; but it is miles from Hwy 73 and it would cost millions in addition sewer lines.
“The further away from the Hwy 73/30 corridor you go, the more cost prohibitive it becomes,” said Utilities Chair, and chief liaison with DEQ, Benny Johnson.
Ascension has invested over $10 million installing sewer lines along Hwy 42 and Hwy 73 in furtherance of the Modified P-1-6 design which envisions a beeline down 73 all the way to the river.
“We, as a full council, authorized our Parish President to go and negotiate a price for (the Grezaffi property),” Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, the council’s most vocal sewer proponent interjected.
“We all want sewer but we don’t want the plant in our back yard,” Satterlee described the NIMBY principle (not in my back yard). “But there’s a state revolving fund loan for $60 million at .95% interest and I, for one, would absolutely hate to see us lose that opportunity…Folks, we need to do this and we need to do this now.”
President Martinez confirmed that DEQ insists on a settled location for the treatment plant before the loan can be processed. DEQ will continue the offer through 2015 a4724ording to President Martinez who would not project further.
“It’s no secret you and I talked after a council meeting,” Satterlee addressed Tommy Martinez. “I asked you then, ‘what are we going to do since that church meeting’…I hope you’re not being political here and we’re doing what’s best for the entire community,” Satterlee kept pushing.
“You asked if Benny Johnson and I were giving up on sewer,” Martinez recalled to Satterlee.
The Parish President and Utilities Chair are not giving up but they are examining other options.
Chris Loar was the only attendee at the December church meeting present on Wednesday (Turner sits on Utilities but he was meeting with the church group instead). And Loar tried to have it both ways.
“It would be completely irresponsible, in my mind, to move forward,” Loar said. “How quickly we forget that we have zero, basically, revenue. We still don’t have a customer base.”
“It’s not about NIMBY,” he insisted. “I understand no one is going to want a plant in their backyard,” he invoked the principle.
“It’s about how financially responsible is it when we’re scratching for every dollar we can for roads,” he conflated Ascension’s two most pressing infrastructure needs. “When $3 million (in debt service on the DEQ loan) could go for roads; that to me is irresponsible.”
“I’m all about sewer and getting it done,” he shifted tack again. “But I’m not interested in moving forward on anything related to sewer until we have a business plan that makes sense.”
But, as Doc Satterlee would point out, a unanimous council did vote to “empower the president to go forward” with regard to the Grezaffi property. An insufficient customer base to service debt on the DEQ loan should come as no surprise to anyone at this late date.
“I’ll tell you what’s irresponsible,” countered Satterlee “voting to do something then suddenly changing your mind for a reason you never expounded to start with. I just don’t understand that.”
But the die is cast, a4724ording to Ascension’s chief executive, and there is no going back.
“We’re already in the sewer business,” Parish President Tommy Martinez had the last word. “We’ve got $10.5 million in the ground now and we’re subsidizing sewer for $1 million per year now.”
Ascension took over a number of small systems that were in poor condition. The parish had to fork out more money than anticipated to make repairs.
“The only way to do it is a public/private partnership and we need to move on that,” Martinez concluded.
In any event, the parish must still find a site for the sewer treatment plant… and that $60 million loan sure would be nice to have. When Tommy Martinez calls it a career at the end of 2015, Ascension’s untreated sewer will still flow, or stagnate, in parish ditches.
Clint Cointment, who hopes to su4724eed Martinez, sat expressionless through Wednesday’s meeting.
“The concept of an outreach program in getting with community leaders, visiting sewer treatment plants in other Parishes, giving and getting feedback is a positive move suggested by the current Council Chair Randy Clouatre. But, this should have taken place a year ago,” Cointment declared.
Councilman Satterlee joined Clouatre, who spoke from the public speakers’ dais Wednesday, to recommend touring state of the art treatment facilities which are not plagued with noxious odors and other quality of life inhibitors associated with traditional sewer plants. Maybe that would appease the citizens opposing the Grezaffi property.
“There is a lack of communication and contact with the people of this parish,” Cointment added. “These issues could have been resolved before ever becoming problems. I’d like to take a proactive approach in working with the public to get raw sewage out of our open ditches and into treatment facilities.”