ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH —St John the Baptist Parish paid $30,000 to secure a coastal use permit to clean debris from its west bank canals in 2012, but never substantially cleaned them.
Willie Robert lives in Edgard, La., and he and his family own a hunting camp and a substantial tract of land around the Dugas Canal, one of the five west bank canals that were supposed to be cleaned. Robert has been pushing the parish to get storm debris, like downed trees and excess vegetation, out of the canals for decades.
The canals are designed to allow storm water to drain, so the water doesn’t back up, flooding the land around them. If the canals are clogged with debris, they can’t drain.
“I'm the only one speaking up because I'm the only one paying attention,” Robert said.
After Hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck, St John the Baptist Parish was awarded $946,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, funds to survey, permit and clean all of its east bank canals.
The parish awarded Royal Engineering a contract to manage the project, pull necessary permits from the La. Department of Natural Resources and survey the east bank canals. Another contractor, Three Deuces, Inc., out of Pearl River cleaned the east bank canals and hauled away the debris.
The parish council voted to pay Royal Engineering an additional $30,000 to survey the canals on the west bank and to get the permit.
Royal Engineering did secure the permit, but Robert says he has proof the canals were never really cleaned.
“We had a permit. We spent $30,000-plus on it. Why we sat on it?” he asked.
Robert took video of a parish worker in a marsh buggy in the Dugas Canal pulling up debris in December of 2015. That was four months after the state permit was supposed to expire.
In an email to the Department of Natural Resources, Ralph Liberstat, an engineer for Royal Engineering, tells state regulators that west bank canal cleaning started January 2, 2014 and was expected to be completed by May 2014.
Time-stamped pictures Robert took of the canal in May 2014 show the canal littered with trees and debris.
The parish could provide no record of the other canals being cleaned at that time either.
Robert’s video from December 2015 was the first time he saw the parish doing any work to clean the canals. St John Public Works Director Brian Nunes admits only about 1,000 feet of the Dugas Canal has been cleaned, with no work done to clear out the other four.
Nunes did say he thinks the neighboring levee district did work on the other four canals at that time, but the only record he could provide of the canals being cleaned was from early 2011, long before the parish secured its permit.
The canals are protected wetlands, which is why the parish needs a permit from DNR to clean them.
An inspector for DNR came out to review the parish's work on the canals in January 2016.
“I said, how can they say the work is complete it hasn't been done?” Robert asked.
The DNR inspector's final report says no pre-and post- construction photos were submitted for the permit, but he wasn’t looking to see whether the work was done, but whether there was any environmental impact.
“He told me it was his job to come out here and look at the staging area only. Where we're standing right here to make sure there are no adverse conditions from them loading the debris from the canal. So, he says it's not his job to make sure that the work was done,” Robert said.
But In getting the canals cleaned, Nunes admits the east bank took priority.
"The value of the houses or property that could be lost is greater on the east bank if this isn't done," Nunes said.
The parish received federal grant funds to do the work on the east bank. Both the permitting and the cleaning would have had to be paid for with parish tax dollars.
Robert says the west bank still needs more attention and he still wants answers about why the parish spent tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars getting the administrative go-ahead but never doing the work.
A previous version of this story said Robert took a picture of Dugas Canal cleaning in 2005. It was corrected to indicate the picture was taken in 2015.