IRONTON, La. -- The small town of Ironton on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish suffered for decades under the government of arch-segregationist Leander Perez and his successors.
In 1980, they received national notoriety as one the last communities in America to get running water.
Ironton is a lot smaller now after flooding from recent hurricanes, with about 35 families calling the community home. But those remaining residents spoke loudly over the past six months to defeat a proposed “borrow pit” in their backyard.
A borrow pit is, essentially, a massive hole in the ground used to dig up soil for levee construction and other projects that need dirt by the ton.
Residents, joined by supporters from throughout the parish, packed several council meetings to oppose the pit across the highway from their homes. A map of the proposed project shows a roughly two-mile long pit that would dwarf the size of their town.
Protesters said the project would bring heavy machinery and industrial traffic and – because the pit would not have to be back-filled – leave behind a water-filled breeding ground for mosquitoes and snakes.
“I really feel we have enough holes in this community already and we don't need any more,” lifelong resident Joyce Cornin said. “They have enough mud to build the levees up with already. So why did another hole? Why? Just tell me why?”
On the heels of the protests, the parish council denied the permit by a 5 to 3 vote.
The community thought the battle was won.
But then the landowner, Terry White of New Orleans, filed a state lawsuit on behalf of his company, Woodland Borrow Pits. The lawsuit was filed after the council approved a different borrow pit to the south.
White’s attorneys argued that they were not being treated fairly. The parish government was named as a defendant, along with the five council members who voted against the permit.
The council hired an attorney and fought the lawsuit, defending their vote at trial in February. Judge Michael Clement did not rule immediately, taking the case under advisement.
That’s when the Woodland Borrow Pit proposal mysteriously reappeared on the council agenda. At the same time, attorneys on both sides wrote a joint letter to Judge Clement asking him to hold off on his ruling because “a proposed settlement of the claims” was scheduled to be debated by the council.
Woodland South Borrow pit
Councilman Burghart Turner, whose district includes Ironton, said the council attorney never told him about the letter or any proposed settlement.
“I can tell you I wasn’t involved in any of those conversations,” Turner said. “And I’m one of the individuals that the lawyers are representing. It was a back door deal.”
At two council meeting earlier this month, the Ironton residents again came out in full force, leaving standing room only a the packed meeting room. Cries of environmental racism were rampant.
Ironton resident Wilkie DeClouet repeated the community’s concerns: Dirt needed to shore up the parish's levees already comes from several existing borrow pits dotting the parish. But none of those sit next to people's homes. And the Woodland North pit would be bigger than any of them.
"What is the reason they're putting it there? There's no reason we need the borrow pit there. The Corps of Engineers said they have enough dirt,” DeClouet said.
Turner was passionate in his opposition of the permit: "The outcry from on the part of the community was deafening. You had to hear it.”
White's attorney, Jean-Paul Layrisson, also gave presentations at the council meetings. He said his client would be a good steward of the land, promising to leave behind a contoured retention pond after the pit is exhausted. The land is currently used for cattle grazing.
“We care about this property,” Layrisson said in an interview. “We don’t want to leave an eyesore. On other properties, my client has left behind lakes, vegetation. We see this as a long-term investment.”
Layrisson also presented a March 26 letter from Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Russell Raines. The letter acknowledged the residents’ claims that there are enough borrow pits to provide the dirt needed for ongoing levee projects, but he noted that additional dirt could expedite the projects and lower the cost.
“Though the material available in the pits that have previously been permitted may meet this need,” Raines wrote in the letter, “the lack of available processed material will drive up the current costs once several of these contracts are under construction at the same time.”
Bolstered by the letter, Layrisson’s arguments prevailed. When the council voted on June 12 to reconsider the permit, two council members – Byron Marinovich and Jeff Edgecombe – switched their votes, and the permit was approved 6 to 3.
Wilkie DeClouet felt betrayed.
"We got over 400 names on a petition that was signed against that borrow pit. Presented it to the council and they still went against it. They went back on their word,” he said.
"It's raping the land, that’s what it is,” said Warren Lawrence, who lives in Myrtle Grove, a marina community that also sits adjacent to the proposed pit. “I was flabbergasted at the council meeting that they changed their vote."
Marinovich and Edgecombe said White’s lawsuit following the approval of the new pit left them little choice legally but to change their votes.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser also weighed in on the controversy, supporting the borrow pit. He said the parish is in such a serious predicament to build up its levees, it shouldn't turn down any opportunity to obtain more dirt to expedite construction.
“I can’t understand why anyone would turn down a chance to speed up the construction of these levees,” Nungesser said.
But the residents of Ironton have not raised the white flag.
On Tuesday, Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic filed an objection to the settlement proposal on behalf of two Ironton homeowners and the Baptist Association of Plaquemines Parish.
In the legal filing, clinic attorney Machelle Hall said she rejects the argument that the council's approval of one borrow pit forced their hand on the Woodland North pit.
"My understanding of the other borrow pit that was permitted is that it's smaller, for one thing, and it's not right next to a community," Hall said.
In fact, the parish's 2012 borrow pit ordinance lists “community impact” and “public opposition” as grounds to deny a permit.
Hall also objected based on the fact that, according to the parish’s borrow pit laws, after a permit has been denied, a 12-month waiting period is required before another permit can be considered.
"One of the things frustrating my clients is that they feel the law isn’t being followed here,” Hall said.
No court date has been set to hear the objections.
Cornin said she is willing to take the legal fight as far as she can.
“All I know is that the people spoke, and that didn’t count one bit,” Cornin said. “It’s not right. I may not be here (to see the outcome), but my grandchildren, they’ll be here. I’m fighting for them.”