ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, La.— St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom said Thursday logistical problems kept the parish from cleaning its West bank canals after paying $30,000 to secure the permit to do the work.
In an interview, Robottom responded to concerns expressed by resident Willie Robert in a WWL-TV investigative report aired Tuesday.
“I'm the only one speaking up because I'm the only one paying attention,” Robert said.
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.
“We had money to pay for the permits. We didn't have money to pay for the cleaning,” Robottom 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 a wetlands permit to clean them.
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.
Robottom said she doesn’t think anyone dropped the ball on getting the work done but did say bad timing and logistical obstacles prevented the parish from doing the work.
“In August, as a matter of fact, on august 17, 2012, five permits were issued for the west bank canals. On August 29, 2012, Hurricane Isaac hit St John the Baptist Parish and flooded over 7,000 homes and businesses, and clearly, our focus shifted to recovery,” Robottom said.
Before the parish secured the 30-thousand dollar permit, in 2010, St John Parish entered into local service agreement with the Lafourche Basin Levee District to clean and maintain 8 west bank.
The levee district had equipment that was too large to fit in some of those canals, so they weren’t able to complete the work on all of them. St John Parish Public Works Director Brian Nunes said from 2010-2011, the levee district cleaned five of the west bank canals, but the parish has provided no documentation to show that five others that were included in the 2012 permit had been cleaned.
After getting the new permit, with the levee district unable to do all of the work, Robottom says the parish tried to rent equipment to do the work, but insurance problems and legal risks prevented them from doing so.
In 2015, the parish bought a marsh buggy to do the work with parish labor.
“Why did we spend $157,000 on the machine and $120,000 on the truck and trailer if we not going to use them,” he asked at the St John Parish Council meeting Tuesday night.
That marsh buggy did so some work on the Dugas canal, however. Robert took video of a parish worker in the marsh buggy 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.
When asked why she thought Royal told DNR the work had begun, Robottom replied, “I really couldn’t respond to that.”
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 at that time to clear out the other four.
“We've done probably more than anybody has and it's insulting to suggest otherwise,” Robottom said. She again points out that five of the west bank canals were cleaned by the levee district in 2010-2011, before the parish got the $30,000 permit.
The canals are protected wetlands, which is why the parish needed 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.
With the permit to clean the west bank canals now expired, Robottom said the parish will now ask it’s engineer, who is paid on retainer, to re-apply for the permit.
“Should we have let it expire? Absolutely not. I found an email from march of 2014 saying please stay on top of this make sure we don't want our permits to expire again. Well, a couple of them expired. Is that what we want? Absolutely not. But I can understand why people were distracted with a lot of stuff that was going on,” she said.
(© 2016 WWL)