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The Times-Picayune: Motiva to spend $10 million to clean up polluted bayou

Lake Pontchartrain may share in benefits

Friday, February 15, 2008
By Matt Scallan

A $10 million agreement to clean up polluted Bayou Trepagnier in St. Charles Parish could be the first step toward diverting badly needed fresh water into Lake Pontchartrain.

The 15,500-foot bayou that winds through the LaBranche Wetlands north of Norco is laced with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, the legacy of nearly a century of service as the drainpipe of Shell Oil’s Norco refinery. The refinery, first built in 1920 and now owned by Motiva Enterprises, stopped drainage into the area in 2000.

The plan, to be completed in about two years, calls on Motiva to pay to cap 6,000 feet of the most polluted section of the bayou closest to Airline Drive, and monitor other parts. In addition, the project will pay to remove contaminated soil from the first 600 feet of the bayou as a “clean zone” that could be used as a freshwater diversion from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain, according to the agreement. Motiva and the state Department of Environmental Quality signed the agreement Thursday at a ceremony in Metairie.
 
“It’s been a long-term goal for us, and we’re very proud to be moving forward,” Motiva Site Manager Anne-Marie Ainsworth said.

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, which has opposed earlier diversion proposals because of fears that phosphate-laden river water would cause fish-killing algae blooms in the lake’s western end, is looking favorably at this one.

“We were opposed to running the diversion through the Bonnet Carré Spillway (as previously proposed) because sending raw river water into the lake would have been disastrous,” said Carlton Dufrecheau, the foundation’s director. “We’re in favor of a diversion that would filter water through wetlands.”

Mark Ford, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said the filtering would benefit both the lake and the 18,000-acre LaBranche Wetlands.

“The wetlands would be nourished and revitalized by the nutrients in the river water. But we can’t do that until the contaminants are removed from the soil,” he said.

The diversion project has not been approved, and other than providing a zone of clean soil, is not part of the agreement with Motiva.

The agreement comes after 18 years of often contentious negotiations between environmentalists, the company, and state regulatory officials, who presented each other with verbal bouquets at a signing ceremony in Metairie.

“The (Department of Environmental Quality) that we’ve been working with for the past two years is not the same DEQ that we started working with in 1991,” said Mark Davis, a Tulane Law School professor who directed the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana during much of the negotiations. Davis said only a coalition of government, industry and nonprofit organizations could have overcome the political and regulatory hurdles needed to make the project happen.

Davis noted that he met his wife, Susan, a consultant for an attorney suing Shell, during that time.

“I’m delighted to be here,” he said. “I had hoped to be here before I had a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old child.”
 
The negotiators had to maneuver over a number of hurdles, including the fact that the bayou was designated a scenic stream under state law, making it illegal to disturb it. In the end, the capping process is likely to fill in the shallow, winding watercourse, and possibly turn it into a mound.

But the Coalition’s Ford said saving the wetlands would be worth it.

The agreement also calls for Motiva to monitor and test the northern reaches of the bayou closest to Lake Pontchartrain for contaminants that could lead to future remediation.

Milton Cambre, a 73-year-old Norco resident who has been sounding the alarm about the decline of the LaBranche Wetlands for 40 years, said he believes a milestone has been reached, and not a moment too soon.

“The salt water is just tearing up the marsh, and is eroding away,” he said. “We have to get some fresh water in there.”

Matt Scallan can be reached at [email protected] or (985) 652-0953.

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