DEQ gives Baton Rouge 90 days to address stormwater plan problems

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has given Baton Rouge until mid-July to correct dozens of problems related to the way it monitors stormwater runoff, which carries chemicals, construction debris and litter into the watershed as it drains from city streets.

In a letter dated April 12, DEQ identifies multiple deficiencies with the 2019 annual report the parish submitted to the state detailing its compliance with its Stormwater Management Program, or SWMP, a technical plan that all municipalities are required to file with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in order to receive a permit to discharge stormwater runoff into the watershed. 

In Louisiana, DEQ administers the permitting program, known as the municipal storm sewer system, or MS4.

According to the April 12 letter to city-parish Director of Environmental Services Rick Speers, Baton Rouge’s 2019 MS4 annual report lacks key information about the way stormwater discharge is measured, monitored and reported by the parish.

The letter gives the parish 90 days from receipt of the letter to correct the deficiencies and notes that the 2020 annual report, which is due May 1, also must address the problems identified in the 2019 report.

“If the revised MS4 Annual Report is not timely submitted, the department may pursue appropriate enforcement action,” the letter says. “You should be aware that any failure to comply with state laws, regulations and permits subjects you to enforcement action, possibly including imposition of civil penalties for each day of noncompliance.”

Mark Armstrong, Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s spokesperson, says the city-parish is in the process of responding to the letter along with “applying DEQ’s recommendations to the 2020 report,” due in two weeks.

But the problems identified by DEQ in the letter go beyond just deficiencies in the annual report. The letter notes that Baton Rouge’s SWMP, last updated in 2016, itself is deficient, and that long-standing problems that have been noted and communicated to the city-parish multiple times by DEQ and the EPA over the years have yet to be corrected.

As previously reported by Daily Report, the problems do not have to do with the quality of stormwater runoff per se, but with the plans for dealing with it and making sure those plans meet EPA standards under the Clean Water Act. 

Baton Rouge has been cited multiple times since 2008 by both federal and state agencies for deficiencies with its SWMP, and four times in recent years it has failed its MS4 audit. It is currently trying to negotiate a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department.

The most recent spate of issues dates to 2016, during former Mayor Kip Holden’s administration. That year, DEQ blasted the parish in a nine-page letter that listed multiple shortcomings with the SWMP.  Among the areas of concern noted in the letter: construction site runoff, illicit discharge detection and elimination, commercial and industrial high-risk runoff, structural controls, municipal pollution prevention, and stormwater management plan development

DEQ gave the city-parish until Oct. 2017 to address the issues and submit a new SWMP. But that deadline was extended at the city’s request, documents show.

When the city-parish finally submitted a new plan, nearly three years later, many of the problems cited in the 2016 letter remained unresolved, according to a September 2019 letter from DEQ.

In March 2020, DEQ sent another letter to the city-parish, saying it was still out of compliance with its SWMP, a situation that apparently persists more than a year later.

If the city-parish is ultimately unable to resolve its MS4 issues, it could be forced into action by the federal government through a consent decree. City-parish officials have declined to comment on the issue, citing ongoing legal talks. DEQ has also declined to discuss ongoing negotiations over the parish MS4 permit.

The condition of Baton Rouge’s watershed—and the litter that piles up in certain low-lying wetlands areas—has become an issue of growing concern around the community, as citizens groups raise awareness of the problem and document it through images. Read a recent Business Report cover story on it.