THE INVESTIGATORS: Excerpts from public records documents within DEQ ignite new debate ahead of vote to possibly move Baton Rouge zoo

Some are concerned about the potential environmental impact of the zoo's potential new site on Airline (Source: WAFB)
Some are concerned about the potential environmental impact of the zoo's potential new site on Airline (Source: WAFB)
WAFB's Scottie Hunter sat down with concerned citizen, Sateria Tate (Source: WAFB)
WAFB's Scottie Hunter sat down with concerned citizen, Sateria Tate (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - As the decision of whether to move BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo to Airline Highway barrels to a conclusion, some are now ratcheting up concerns over a former landfill at the potential new home.

Excerpts from public records documents in the electronic data management system within the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are fueling those new questions, confirming the former dump site was operating in 1978 for a little more than a year before being closed due to complaints. Some people are now wondering exactly what was dumped there and if it could pose a threat to animals possibly living there long-term and potential new employees working there for long periods of time.

"There are so many unknowns," said Sateria Tate, member of the North Baton Rouge Now Blue Ribbon Commission.

Tate has been working to stop the zoo from moving. She started looking into the collection of documents a few weeks ago and says she was shocked that she and so many other people she spoke with had no idea about this part of the site's history. "I'm not an engineer, I'm not a specialist, but I am a concerned citizen who seen this information and I have questions and I would hope that BREC would have the same questions."

9News took those questions to DEQ. Roger Gingles, assistant secretary for the office of environmental assessment, says the former landfill makes up only about 17.5 acres of the 100 acre property at Airline. Based on their records, it was used for household and commercial waste. Gingles says whatever is buried there should not be a threat. "Based on our records, there is nothing there that's above a regulatory level," said Gingles.

Gingles says DEQ passed this information along to consultants for BREC, saying while they could still use the site, they would need to make sure not to disturb the dump site. "We prefer low-impact uses for old landfills, green spaces or parking areas, something like that," Gingles added.

Lee Day, senior geologist with Terracon Environmental, was brought on by BREC to conduct the environmental study for the Airline location. He says now that it checks out, BREC could possibly move forward with more tests if they get the green light on the plan from commissioners. He says it's vital though, that they ensure safety.

"It's very early in the process. The first step was due diligence to evaluate," said Day. "Any additional work will be done with coordination with DEQ, including collection of ground and water samples to further evaluate the usability of that portion of the site."

While glad to have an answer, Tate says she would have rather gotten the information from BREC without having to go to the media. "I think this is something that BREC really needs to put some attention on and they need to be forthcoming and transparent with the public on this issue," she said.

BREC spokeswoman, Cheryl Michelet, says they have been nothing but transparent throughout the process. When it comes to the Airline site, she says they wanted something more concrete before presenting their findings to the public. "If we had gotten information that said to us, this is absolutely not feasible, then why even put it out there as a possibility and then turn around and say now we have information that it won't work," Michelet explained.

Through public meetings, studies, and listening session, Michelet maintains they have done everything possible to include the public, but believes alerting people to every small detail without complete information would have been irresponsible. "It would be like saying that everything that you did in your job had to be done on camera. That's not realistic," Michelet said. "I don't want to put anything out in the public that is incorrect, inaccurate. We want to make sure we have our answers before we put it out there."

Tate though says as a public agency, that's exactly what she expects from BREC. In fact, she sent an email on March 9 asking for more. She wrote that the lack of disclosure and transparency from the agency was a major source of her concerns. Almost a week later, BREC responded, telling her the concerns would be taken up at a public meeting on March 22. For Tate, that did not answer any of her questions.

"They had ample opportunity to address or correct any information that is out there," Tate explained. "They chose not to do so, so if you're really and truly open and transparent with the public, then you'll engage with the public, not just on your terms."

WAFB's Scottie Hunter asked Michelet, based on the criticisms the organization has gotten, if she feels as if the response to those questions should have been handled differently.

"I don't think that I would feel comfortable with incomplete answers," Michelet responded.

9News has also learned BREC did meet with DEQ on March 6. More than a week before responding to Tate's email, Michelet said they did not receive any findings from that meeting to pass along. "It was not a meeting where any reports exchanged hands or any detailed information exchanged hands," Michelet explained.

WAFB's Scottie Hunter asked, based on that meeting, if there was not enough information to at least provide something for people asking pointed questions about the process. "I believe there were still some questions that hadn't been answered yet," Michelet added. "There was still some looking into what hadn't been answered yet."

With a vote on the zoo's future closing in, both Michelet and Tate hope commissioners will make the right decision, but they disagree on exactly what that would look like.

"At this point, the only thing that would be a logical response to this is to shut this down," said Tate.

"We're hopeful that tomorrow night, they will listen to all the evidence and make a vote that's best for the community," Michelet added.

A summary of those excerpts from public records documents within DEQ's electronic data management system can be viewed here.

The letter from DEQ to BREC confirming details of their March 6 meeting can be viewed here.

Anyone interested in accessing the DEQ electronic data management system for themselves to view these and other documents can do so here.

Copyright 2018 WAFB. All rights reserved.