By Suzanne Murray, with John Blevins
One of the most gratifying accomplishments that I can point to in my almost 20 years with EPA would never have happened if the Agency relied solely on traditional tools to address environmental and community concerns. These traditional tools include discussions focused on enforcement resolution only, which are conducted in a “closed-door” confidential setting. For the Buffer Zone Project for the City of Baton Rouge Wastewater Treatment Plant, we helped to break down bureaucratic silos and historic barriers by going beyond traditional practices and achieved what we set out to do every day at EPA – making a neighborhood and its environment a better place to live.
Baton Rouge, which sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, is a city that saw its population temporarily explode after Hurricane Katrina. The University Place neighborhood where the treatment plant is located is a predominantly minority, lower-income community. Residents complained about foul odors and swarms of sewer flies invading their homes. After decades of sharing their neighborhood with the facility and its expansions, residents were looking for change.
When I became involved in the project in 2012, there already had been a decade of legal battles between the neighborhood and the City, a civil rights action against EPA, and an enforcement action against the treatment plant. The City felt hamstrung because it had already made significant investment in the plant at a time when the infrastructure of Baton Rouge was pushed beyond capacity, due in large part to the population nearly doubling in the month after Hurricane Katrina.
Emotions were running high due to positions taken and statements made about the treatment plant during the protracted legal battles, but everyone in Baton Rouge wanted an outcome that ended the fighting and addressed community concerns. The neighborhood had asked for relocation, which the City of Baton Rouge had supported as a path forward – but the City had no legal mechanism to support such a project. So, along with our colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), we flew to Baton Rouge. We came upon a tense situation where traditional legal options were scarce. All we had was a decade-old enforcement consent decree that needed modification, a civil rights complaint, and no consensus on how to move forward.
What followed was months of conversations, negotiations, and advocacy, which took place at kitchen tables, in conference rooms and community centers, and at City Council meetings. We talked to and worked with people from the community and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), a local environmental organization, and representatives of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the Mayor’s Office and the State of Louisiana. These meetings were not easy and not always civil – there were raised voices, tears, and even a bit of laughter. But despite the differences, there was always one remarkable uniting force – we all wanted to make the buffer zone project happen. There was a power in our united singularity of purpose.
Eventually, this collaborative effort prevailed and the City is creating a buffer zone around the wastewater treatment facility, which includes green space and the relocation of residents living in approximately three city blocks surrounding the treatment plant. The project is now memorialized in a consent decree among EPA, the City, Concerned Citizens of University Place Subdivision, and LEAN. As Adam Babich of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic said, “It was a bumpy ride. We got an agreement only because everyone kept working and kept talking.”
I believe it’s working because all parties have represented what they want and are doing so in an honest way. We are still talking. We continue to work out the inevitable kinks that go along with implementing a large scale project, particularly one that is so filled with the emotions that come with uprooting one’s family and changing one’s home. We are not overcommitting, but working within the authorities that we have to make a difference for the citizens and for Baton Rouge’s infrastructure.
If traditional methods, while useful and successful in many situations, had been relied upon in this instance, I do not believe the final project would have been possible. It is clear that having these types of conversations – face-to-face, person-to-person dialogues where voices may be raised but new relationships can be forged – are crucial to the success of environmental projects where people’s lives and homes are impacted.
About the authors: Suzanne Murray, EPA Region 6 Regional Counsel, has been with EPA since 1997, when she joined the Agency as an enforcement attorney. Since that time she served as the Deputy Regional Counsel for Enforcement and has been the Regional Counsel since 2001.
John Blevins, EPA Region 6 Enforcement Director, has been with EPA since 1986, where he has held positions in EPA Regions 9, 4 and 6. John has also held positions with the states of Oregon and Delaware. John has been the Region 6 Enforcement Director since 2005.