Borrow pit debate rages onJun 12th, 2012 | By Jessica Gonzalez | Category: news
The debate about borrow pits and backfilling is nothing new— the issue has been a contentious one for several decades, but one simple question still remains unanswered for many residents: why won’t borrow pit operators backfill?
There is still speculation as to why the council cannot enforce borrow pit regulations currently on the books, but some say what really lies at the heart of the issue is money and politics.
“What we have right now is a select group of business people, and some involved with the politicians, who own some land and they don’t want to backfill because it costs more money,” said Councilchair Byron Marinovich. “Some people are trying to make extra millions of dollars by not having to backfill.”
Those local business people Marinovich alludes to are the partners in Plaquemines Dirt & Clay— a contracting and excavation company owned by six community members who bought land from Parish President Billy Nungesser’s trust in 2008. The controversial land transaction caught the attention of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. In 2009 Nungesser was subject to an audit to determine, among other things, if the real estate transaction violated the State’s Code of Governmental Ethics as well as the Parish Charter, citing state law regarding payments for non-public service. No citations were issued.
As far as the backfilling of pits go, Nungesser says there are about 60 pits in the parish, many of which were the result of the expropriation agreement between the Corps and PPG before he took office. According to Nungesser, unpermitted borrow pit excavation took place by the Corps as a result of this agreement, and the pits were never backfilled. Now, he says, the current council wants to mandate backfilling for private operators without addressing the pits that were previously dug by the Corps.
Still, the council is wary of Nungesser and his affiliation with Plaquemines Dirt & Clay, mainly because of the strong grip the administration has over public records, especially when it comes to borrow pits and permits.
Plaquemines Dirt & Clay co-owner, Mike Bush, who is also President of Mississippi River Bank, feels that the allegations of ethics violations on the part of Plaquemines Dirt & Clay are unfounded.
“We’ve been accused of operating borrow pits without a license and of not paying sales tax, which is absurd and untrue,” Bush said in an interview.
According to a correspondence from Geessler Saul, Manager of the Sales Tax/Use Department, in February of 2012, a delinquent notice was sent out to Plaquemines Dirt & Clay for non-payment of sales tax. But after the department investigated the matter, it was found that the company had two accounts with the sales tax department.
“According to Mr. Bush, only one account should exist. The accounts were reviewed and the information provided by Mr. Bush was correct. The inactive account was closed,” Saul wrote.
Saul also explains in the correspondence that she had been approached several times about getting Sales Tax receipts for borrow pit operators by Councilchair Marinovich and Former Parish President Benny Rousselle, including receipts for Plaquemines Dirt & Clay. But after consulting Parish Attorney Steve Braud, it was determined that sales tax receipts and other financial matters were not considered public record— something the council disagrees with. As a means to threaten Braud, there is currently a resolution on the agenda to defund his position of Parish Attorney, offered by Councilchair Marinovich. It has been deferred at the past two meetings.
In April, the PPC approved a resolution authorizing and directing the Council Attorney’s Office and the Council Secretary to prepare and issue a subpoena which requires the Permits, Planning and Zoning department to submit to the council all documents relating to the parish’s borrow pits. At the May 10 meeting, Marinovich said that the permits department has been “very forthcoming with the documents”.
Marinovich, who offered the resolution, explained that the documents— which include permit applications, permits, resolutions, forms, letters, notes, e-mails, facsimiles, and receipts— are needed as the parish is involved in several court cases in which permit applicants are challenging the parish’s cloudy backfill ordinances.
“We’ve been trying to get some answers on who has a permit, who doesn’t have a permit, who’s grandfathered in, who’s ‘non-conforming, pre-existing use’,” Marinovich said. “This is the first step in gathering information we need to make informed decision on which way we to want to go with borrow pit laws.”
The only other councilman to speak on the issue of public records during that meeting was Anthony Buras of District 5. Buras told the council that he usually does not support measures like this, but after his recent experiences with trying to obtain public records regarding borrow pits in his district, he feels very strongly about the subpoena and the subsequent mandamus on the Parish President.
“I would like to know what word I could use that’s stronger than ‘stonewalled’ but nothing comes to mind right now,” Buras stated. “Recently I’ve attempted to get information from the Permit’s department about a borrow pit in my district, and I was flat-out told that that only way I could receive information was if filled out a public records request that needed to be approved by the Parish President. That’s a shame and a disgrace.”
While much of the council’s ire has been directed toward at Plaquemines Dirt & Clay with all sides crying politics, but there are other borrow pit operators affected in various ways. What hangs in balance is the parish’s ability to get levees built to protect citizens and the borrow pits’ impact on the residents who live near them.