The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality stopped a New Orleans city contractor from cleaning debris out of clogged catch basins and drain lines, raising concerns about where the contractor, RAMJ Construction LLC, was dumping the sludge their vacuum trucks sucked out of the city's drainage system.
DEQ put the brakes on the city's "emergency" effort to clean 15,000 catch basins because the city and its contractor didn't have a written plan for where the sludge would go.
"We’ve asked them not to dispose of any material until they get a plan in place that we approve," said Greg Langley, Communications Director for DEQ.
The vacuum/flush trucks use water to force clogs out of the city's smaller drain lines. Anything greater than 36 inches in diameter is the responsibility of the Sewerage & Water Board.
Water and sludge vacuumed out of the catch basins and drain lines gets pulled into a tank on the trucks, but according to DEQ, liquids can not be dumped in a landfill.
"They have to spread the solids at an offsite location to let it dry, then taken to a landfill," Langley said.
The city of New Orleans submitted a dumping plan to the agency Monday, and while Langley said the agency will expedite the review process, it's an added delay to years of deferred maintenance of the drainage system.
Rain water inundated some homes and businesses on July 22 and again on August 5, causing an uproar among residents after the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board admitted some of the city's drainage pumps were broken or were down for maintenance.
The floods led Mayor Mitch Landrieu to declare a state of emergency because of the diminished drainage capacity, should a tropical weather system dump large amounts of rain on the city during hurricane season.
The city issued an emergency contract up to $4,537,500 to RAMJ Construction to clean the catch basins and smaller drain lines September 6, a month after the last flood.
"As is typical for these types of projects, one priority of the first week was to finalize all logistics. When it became clear that the contractor needed a better process to appropriately dispose of the solid and slurry waste products from the storm drains, DPW met with representatives of LDEQ for consultation on the disposal process last week," said Erin Burns, Press Secretary for Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Before the summer floods, two of the five vacuum trucks operated directly by the New Orleans Department of Public Works were out of service. Since then, one of those has been repaired and returned to service.
A statement released as an update to the city's drainage system last month said, "DPW cleans an average of 5 to 6 catch basins per day per vacuum truck crew for an average of 4,263 catch basins per year."
Langley said it is unclear where the city has been dumping material cleaned by DPW trucks in the past since there was no DEQ-approved plan in place.
The emergency contract with RAMJ Construction states, "The Contractor will be required to dispose of the any debris at a sanction licensed landfill, as approved by the City and any other regulatory agency. Contractor is also responsible for any permitting or fees associated with debris removal and disposal activities."
Langley said RAMJ was represented in a DEQ meeting with city representatives on Friday and that RAMJ indicated at least 10 loads of debris may have been inappropriately dumped at various landfills throughout the metro area.
Landrieu's press secretary said DPW has met with DEQ three times since the catch basin cleaning began in earnest September 7.
"We expect to have final resolution tomorrow and be positioned to resume work shortly," Burns said.