LCG hopes to avoid federal fines, more costs on major drainage projects

Water seeping into nearby waterways from Homewood project
An EPA investigation of the Homewood project found that from the beginning of 2022 until Jan. 1 of this year, LCG’s contractor, Rigid Constructors, discharged dredged material into wetlands and streams on or near the 372-acre site without a Corps permit. Photo by Katie Hays

A trail of regulatory lapses has continued to bog signature projects spearheaded by the Guillory administration.

The latest is the ongoing fallout of former Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s decision to forgo federal permitting for major drainage projects.

An amicable settlement with federal regulators may be in sight for current Mayor-President Monique Boulet, but it’s likely to add to already hefty costs associated with ramshod work.

In early May, Lafayette Consolidated Government entered into near identical consent orders with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over Clean Water Act violations at the massive Homewood detention pond site near Milton and the Coulee Ile des Cannes detention pond project near Scott

EPA’s action is but the latest controversy dogging the unfinished Homewood project, for which LCG has already shelled out $76 million with scant evidence the ponds will meaningfully reduce flooding in the area.

The state continues to withhold tens of millions of dollars in reimbursements in part because the ponds at both locations lack a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit needed for them to connect to waterways and become functional.

An investigation for enforcement action on the Homewood project, first reported by Straight News Online in March 2023, found that from the beginning of 2022 until Jan. 1 of this year, LCG’s contractor, Rigid Constructors, discharged dredged material into wetlands and streams on or near the 372-acre site without a Corps permit.

I think the relevant federal agencies recognize that this administration didn’t do anything [wrong], that we kind of inherited the situation.

City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger

“The impacted areas are relatively permanent waters connecting to the Vermilion River, which flows into Vermilion Bay, a traditional navigable water,” the EPA’s Region 6 enforcement division wrote. The Corps must authorize any discharge of pollutants into navigable waters, which requires a Clean Water Act permit.

According to the EPA, LCG's contractor similarly discharged dredged material into Coulee Ile des Cannes, which flows into the Vermilion River.

“We met with EPA, we’re negotiating with EPA, and the fact that we are not fighting with them goes a long way,” Boulet told the Milton Civic Organization earlier this month.

The EPA's May orders gave LCG 90 days to submit Clean Water Act permit applications to the Corps, but Boulet told the organization LCG had already sent the after-the-fact permit applications in. “We had to start the whole application process; we had to bring in consultants to help us,” she said.

If the Corps grants the permits, LCG will be required to repair or otherwise redress some of the damage; if the Corps denies the permits, local government will have to restore any impacts to “jurisdictional Waters of the U.S. if feasible, or provide appropriate mitigation for unrestorable jurisdictional areas, subject to any rights to administrative appeal or judicial review,” according to the order.

Rigid Constructors is also facing enforcement action from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, for failure to have a stormwater pollution prevention plan and stormwater control failures at the Homewood site, among other violations, according to an enforcement division memo dated April 30.

Over the last 18 months, the Corps confirmed in legal proceedings and statements to the media the existence of at least three inquiries into LCG's drainage projects. It is also looking into potential violations involving the spoil banks removal in St. Martin Parish, a project that remains mired in legal troubles.

LCG either failed to secure Corps permits or verify permits were not needed before commencing all three projects. Rigid Constructors is the contractor on all of the projects associated with the known Corps investigations.

The EPA says in the consent orders that it believes settling the violations will save time and resources and is in the public interest. Despite its willingness to work with LCG, EPA is reserving its right to undertake civil or criminal action to seek penalties or fines for LCG’s current violations or any new ones. The agency notes that violations of the Clean Water Act can result in penalties of up to $64,000 per day and that criminal action could make LCG ineligible for certain government contracts, grants or loans.

“Let me say that they have said to us, you know, on top of all this, they could fine us,” Boulet said.

City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger, who moved quickly to dismiss LCG’s lawsuit against the Corps over the spoil banks removal project, believes the EPA and Corps appreciate the new level of cooperation and collaboration, even though fines aren’t off the table.

“I think the relevant federal agencies recognize that this administration didn’t do anything [wrong], that we kind of inherited the situation,” Ottinger says. “We are endeavoring to do the things necessary to make this right.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a near-identical consent order LCG entered into with EPA over violations at the Coulee Ile des Cannes drainage project in Scott.