DENHAM SPRINGS, LA (WAFB) - Raw sewage from a business in Denham Springs has been allowed to overflow onto neighboring properties for years, and state health and environmental agencies have taken little action despite several complaints from residents, some dating as far back as 1991.
The business allowing it to happen is Highland Village Mobile Home Park, home to about a dozen families.
Wastewater from the drains and toilets in the trailers has been flowing into septic tanks that do not work and do not even have sealed covers, causing pools of sewage to form on the surface and travel to wherever the terrain permits.
Bearing the brunt of the pollution is John Williams, who owns a house and three acres next door to the park. Williams says the problem has been going on for at least two years and has taken over his land. "The mosquitoes are horrible. The smell is horrible," Williams said. "Just to look over here and see this area is kind of disgusting."
The body of water that looks like a flooded pond in Williams' back yard is not a pond at all. It has no lily pads or goldfish. It's a cesspool full of waste and fecal matter and acts as a home for large swarms of mosquitoes that attack anyone brave enough to go near it.
Livingston Parish Councilman Scooter Keen had to pause several times during an interview there because of the biting mosquitoes. "It's getting out of hand," Keen said. "It's ridiculous."
The councilman pointed out the current situation is actually an improvement from what it was like earlier this year. "In March, when I came, all the septic tanks were wide open and children were playing in the yards around the trailers," Keen said. "What if one of them fell in? You wouldn't even find them."
The 9News Investigators visited the trailer park earlier this month and found several flooded septic tanks, a broken sewer line, and a stream of sewage flowing to Williams' backyard. The septic tanks had no lids and instead, appeared to have been hastily covered with sheets of metal. A sump pump sat in the middle of the flooded system, connected to a utility pole by a long stretch of high-voltage Romex-type wire that lay exposed on the ground with no type of conduit.
Keen and Williams both say they've complained to the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), but have seen little progress.
THE PAPER TRAIL
The 9News Investigators obtained records on Highland Village from the LDEQ dating back more than 25 years. The documents show a long list of issues and violations, including the most recent one from March.
The report cited the owner for not submitting discharge monitoring reports, having no lids on the septic tanks, allowing raw sewage to discharge into an open drainage ditch, and having no chlorination system for treating fecal-form bacteria. The LDEQ inspector also noted the conditions had not changed from the last inspection in February of 2015.
Buried in the LDEQ file was a complaint from a resident filed in 1991 regarding raw sewage on the property, a sick child as a result, and a foul odor. The inspector at that time found the then-owner did not have the proper operating permits.
The current owner of Highland Village, Donnie Gill, bought the property three years ago. Gill would not speak to the Investigators on camera, but did say the trailer park was in need of repairs when he first bought it.
On May 5, LDEQ sent a warning letter asking Gill to review the areas of concern and submit a written response within 30 days. The following month, the agency sent him an expedited penalty agreement that included $550 in fines, but LDEQ officials say they have yet to receive any payments from Gill.
"There's no end to this situation," said Williams.
AN AGENCY WITH NO TEETH?
LDEQ isn't the only agency issuing violation notices and threatening Gill with fines. The Louisiana Department of Health began investigating the business in January.
Field notes from one health inspector indicate the property had multiple septic tanks "in disrepair" and that Gill told the inspector he would have a new sewer system installed to tie into the parish main line within the next 30 days, but two months later, health inspectors went back to the trailer park and found the same septic system overflowing and discharging onto the ground. On March 20, LDH sent Gill a violation notice and gave him 15 days to address the issue or face a fine of $100 per day, up to $10,000.
In the letter, the agency concluded: "Allowing untreated or partially treated wastewater to discharge onto the ground is a critical violation and a threat to public health."
Williams patiently waited for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn while the drains and toilets from the trailers expelled more and more of their contents into his backyard.
Three months went by before inspectors checked on the property again. It was business as usual, both at the trailer park and at the LDH office in Livingston Parish. The agency sent another letter, again threatening him with a fine, though they never followed through on the first threat. This time they are giving Gill 60 days to correct the issues.
"[The] occupancy of a premise that does not have proper sewage treatment is an imminent health threat," the letter reads. "As I am sure you are aware, this situation is very serious."
Assistant Secretary of Public Health Parham Jaberi says the situation is difficult because there are residents living at the trailer park who might be displaced if the agency shuts down the business. "Our ability to enforce is limited," said Jaberi.
In an off-camera interview, Gill, the owner of the trailer park, said work on the new system was delayed because of bad weather and LDH's slow permit process.
Jaberi says that's because Gill's initial engineering plans for the new system did not meet all the agency's requirements. The agency approved Gill's newest set of plans on August 17 and that work should progress soon, said Jaberi.
Williams, however, says he isn't getting his hopes up. "I've heard it all before," he said.
LDH officials say they will not issue any more permits to Gill or allow him to have any more tenants until the situation is rectified. And in a phone call Thursday afternoon, Gill told 9News he intends to pay the $550 LDEQ fine.