The ongoing controversy over a tire shredder program proposed for East Baton Rouge Parish may seem relatively inconsequential. But little things often speak volumes about local government.
The issue dates back more than a year, when Todd Walker, then-executive director of the parish Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control district, applied for a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to buy a tire shredder. The idea was to address Baton Rouge’s growing problem with waste tires, which contribute to blight in underserved neighborhoods and serve as breeding ponds for disease-bearing mosquitoes.
It seemed like a good idea, and Walker, working through the state department of health, secured the grant, which totals more than $600,000.
But concerns over his pricey plans to build out a facility to house the shredder on MARC property, as well as other questions about excessive spending at MARC’s swank new offices near the airport, led Metro Council members to pressure Walker to resign.
Following that flap, the agency’s board and interim executive director, Randy Vaeth, decided they no longer wanted to be in the tire shredder business, though, they would stick to the terms of the grant award, which required that MARC buy the machine and administer the program, at least on paper.
That’s when Matt Watson stepped in. The ambitious Metro Council member has made blight eradication one of his priorities, even if it means taking on grassroots cleanup projects in north Baton Rouge neighborhoods outside of his own south Baton Rouge district.
Watson, too, had been championing a tire shredder for some time, though more to address blight than the spread of disease, so he began looking around for a firm that would be willing to take on the program in place of MARC and operate the machine at no cost to the city-parish.
He found one in Baum Environmental Services, which agreed to operate the shredder for free in return for the processed scrap, which it would sell at a profit.
In late September, the council unanimously approved the deal, stipulating that the shredder equipment would be located on unused space at MARC’s old office complex adjacent to the parish prison.
It seemed like the proverbial win-win. But there was a problem: Though a majority of the council had approved the deal at the Sept. 25 meeting, only eight of the 12 council members were present for the vote. The other four, including Chauna Banks—in whose council district the proposed shredder would be located—were at a legislative black caucus meeting in Washington, D.C.
There had been no secret about the tire shredder being on the council agenda that day, and none of the four absent council members raised an eyebrow about the issue—until weeks later, when Banks began questioning the deal and alleging it smacked of environmental injustice.
There is no denying that environmental injustice abounds in Louisiana, especially in underserved communities like north Baton Rouge. We don’t have to look hard to find examples.
But the proposed location for the tire shredder is not one of them. To suggest otherwise undermines the integrity of the environmental injustice cause and does a disservice to all who are legitimate victims of it.
In fact, the proposed location for the shredder is owned by the airport and is zoned industrial because it was an industrial waste site decades ago. What’s more, it’s spitting distance from the airport and adjacent to parish prison. It’s a rather ideal location for a tire shredder, which not incidentally, is not the same thing as a waste dump, as Banks has alleged.
On the contrary, the whole idea behind the shredder is to clean up the waste tires that abound in Banks’ district and those of other north Baton Rouge council members. That’s the real environmental injustice. Is the problem, perhaps, that Watson, a white Republican council member and potential mayoral candidate in 2020, is the one trying to clean them up?
Banks has raised a couple of points worth vetting. For one, she’s concerned that what may start out as a tire shredding facility will eventually become a waste dump. That’s unlikely. Remember, Baum only makes money on the deal by selling processed scrap. It’s not in the company’s best interest to let waste tires or any other garbage accumulate on site.
More to the point, though Banks has said she would like to see a master plan for the area that would involve mixed uses, including residential, but no one is going to develop commercial or residential property on airport land atop World War II-era industrial waste next to a prison.
Banks says she has alerted the CDC to her concerns and that it, too, now has questions. This could not be independently verified but it’s entirely possible, and could put the brakes on the project. Even the whiff of environmental injustice is enough to give the federal government cold feet.
And what of Baum? At what point does a private company walk away from a deal that brings with it allegations of environmental racism, not to mention political machinations? Sooner or later, it will cut its losses, move on and warn others away from doing business in Baton Rouge.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking. MARC has to spend its $600,000 grant by June 30 or it loses the money. It wouldn’t be the first time Baton Rouge has missed out on free money because of politics.
It likely won’t be the last.