Baton Rouge’s dirty secret: 81 tons of litter in wetlands behind LSU’s Burden Center

DIRTY SECRET: 81 tons of litter in wetlands behind LSU's scenic Burden gardens and museum

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Behind the flowers and the reminders of what life used to be like in Louisiana, there’s a relic to the past tucked behind the foliage at LSU’s Burden Center.

Eighty-one tons of Baton Rouge’s discarded waste sits in a 30-acre wetland. Plastic bottles, beer cans, and basketballs that have floated into the area from Wards Creek fill the swampy area, thick enough to walk on without touching the dirt beneath.

Behind the foliage at LSU's Burden Center hides 81 tons of plastic bottles, beer cans, and other discarded waste in a 30-acre wetland.
Behind the foliage at LSU's Burden Center hides 81 tons of plastic bottles, beer cans, and other discarded waste in a 30-acre wetland. (Source: Austin Kemker/WAFB-TV)

“Our fathers and grandfathers have done this,” said Marie Constantin, a founding member of the Louisiana Stormwater Coalition. “When we’re picking up litter we pick up our fathers and grandfathers litter, and our litter. This is a decades and decades-old problem.”

Constain estimates in some parts of the litter swamp, trash is 18 inches deep. According to Jeff Kuehny, the Director of the Burden Center, LSU will be doing core samples to see if the litter goes down any further into the soil.

“Every time I come back here I just, it’s hard to fathom how much litter has collected back here over time,” Kuehny said.

Behind the foliage at LSU's Burden Center hides 81 tons of plastic bottles, beer cans, and other discarded waste in a 30-acre wetland.
Behind the foliage at LSU's Burden Center hides 81 tons of plastic bottles, beer cans, and other discarded waste in a 30-acre wetland. (Source: Austin Kemker/WAFB-TV)

Kuehny took over as the director of the Burden Center 10 years ago. That is when he first discovered the waste-laden area. Nearly a decade later, it has only grown worse. The problem, the parish has never prioritized stopping the litter from floating into the area, nor has it taken measures to clean up the mess. He said that is likely due to leaders and residents having a blasé attitude toward litter and the fact most people, including policymakers, do not know the litter swamp is there. The area is surrounded by trees and the only way to see it clearly is by air or to hike through the wetland from a nearby neighborhood.

“This is as filthy as anything you’d see on the streets of Port-au-Prince, without a doubt,” Constantin said.

Constantin and Kuehny have worked together over the last year-and-a-half to start cleaning the area up. Volunteers will come in hoping to make a dent the pile of cans and bottles but Kuehny said most are overwhelmed.

Behind the foliage at LSU's Burden Center hides 81 tons of plastic bottles, beer cans, and other discarded waste in a 30-acre wetland.
Behind the foliage at LSU's Burden Center hides 81 tons of plastic bottles, beer cans, and other discarded waste in a 30-acre wetland. (Source: Austin Kemker/WAFB-TV)

Any progress that is made by those volunteers is quickly erased by following rainstorms as the litter on the streets of Baton Rouge is washed into the drains, eventually being deposited into vast system of canals and waterways across the parish. When the trash finds its way in Wards Creek, it is common for it to be deposited in the wetlands behind the Burden Center.

“if you have a fully funded storm water program, what you have is you have money to buy the best equipment on the market, you have money to educate and try to bring it down on the curb, you have money to keep your storm canals clear, which if you do that you prevent flooding, and you have money for education,” Constantin said.

Constantin is a strong proponent of the parish including a stormwater fee on residents’ utility bills. She used the city of Miami, Fla. as an example, citing a minimal $3 fee was tacked on and over the last five years it has been able to collect nearly $60 million to not only clean up litter from its waterways, but fix flooding issues that have plagued the city.

That idea has received pushback, including form the East Baton Rouge Parish Presidents Office. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said she wants to explore every opportunity to secure private and federal dollars to fund clean up and preventative measures, such as the ones Constantin has proposed.

“Successful initiatives oftentimes, more often than not involve public-private partnerships,” Broome said.

One of the promising partnerships Broome is hoping will help solve the problem of waste in Baton Rouge’s waterways is with The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI). Baton Rouge was announced as one of three cities along the Mississippi River to take part in a pilot program that empowers its citizens to collect data about plastic pollution.

“Making Baton Rouge a cleaner community will take a whole community approach. MRCTI’s Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative gives our citizens a powerful tool to help stop plastic pollution at its source,” said Broome, who is also the co-chair for MRCTI. “The data from this initiative will help inform the city-parish how to reduce plastic pollution before it enters our waterways.”

The initiative relies on the Marine Debris Tracker app which allows residents to document and label debris around the parish. According to MRCTI, the goal is to collect the data in order to secure federal grants that will allow the parish leaders to install infrastructure that will collect waste before it enters the waterways, along with funding educational programs to help residents understand litter does not just stay on the streets.

Broome did not have a timeline on when those dollars could start flowing in, she did say she expects significant progress to made on stormwater updates and waste clean up during her current term as Mayor-President.

In the meantime she said her administration has implemented policies such as strategic street sweeping, dedicated litter crews, Operation Clean up, and added educational measures to help prevent litter from hitting the streets.

As far as cleaning up the mess that has already been made, the parish and LSU are teaming up to get heavy equipment into the area to start removing the decades old litter.

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“We need heavy equipment to get in here to be able to scoop all this up,” Kuehny said. You can imagine we can have hundreds of people back there for many weekends in a row and we’d never get it cleaned up.”

There is no timeline on how long it will take. Kuehny said permits have to be pulled to bring the equipment into a wetland, but he said for once he believes the tides are turning and the problem will be fixed.

He said the main thing is to keep letting people know about the problem until enough pressure can be put on leaders to make the necessary changes.

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