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Bogue Chitto River neighbors monitor recent spill

26th September 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Toni Mizell, owner of the Bogue Chitto Tubing Center in Bogalusa, worries his business will be shut for a while after the state issued a warning for the nearby river on Sept. 17. And he wonders how many people swam or fished in the Bogue Chitto before they learned it may have been fouled by the previous Friday’s levee breach at the City of Brookhaven’s Waste Treatment Plant in Mississippi. Residents of Louisiana’s Washington and St. Tammany parishes weren’t aware of the breach until that Saturday afternoon and evening.

But on a positive note, the spill’s discharge into the river, as reported by the state of Louisiana that Saturday, was lowered this past Monday, Mizell said.

The 100-mile Bogue Chitto flows southeast into the Pearl River. The Pearl’s east and west channels empty into Lake Borgne and the Rigolets at the eastern end of New Orleans. Bogue Chitto means “big creek” in Choctaw.

On the afternoon of Sept. 16, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality learned of that morning’s spill, and issued a water-contact advisory at 4:21 p.m., MDEQ spokesman Robbie Wilbur said last week. The advisory said that six million gallons had been released, without mentioning on-site retention or saying how much waste had entered the river. The advisory covered the river from Brookhaven to the Mississippi-Louisiana border. Wilbur said that on Monday he let people who’d asked him about the spill in previous days know that 1.3 million gallons had entered the river, while the rest of the waste water had been contained.

In Louisiana, word about the spill didn’t circulate in Washington Parish until Saturday and after weekend recreation on the river had begun. At the Washington Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, “we heard about it after lunch that Saturday, and not directly from the state, but from an advisory that popped up on my personal Facebook page from a TV app,” Bobbi Jo Breland in OHSEP’s office in Franklinton said. Franklinton is down the river from Brookhaven.

In St. Tammany Parish, “we learned about the spill Saturday evening, and posted it right away to our Facebook page at 8 p.m.,” spokeswoman Amy Bouton said.

What caused the spill? Nutria bored through the bottom of a levee at a lagoon near the treatment plant, creating a 12-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep hole, Keith Lewis, the City of Brookhaven’s public works director, said. “We noticed it at about 7 a.m. on Friday, September 16,” he said. “Six million gallons overflowed, but much of it was trapped by a dike.” The discharge into the river was 1.3 million gallons, not the six million reported by Louisiana the following Saturday. The hole in the levee was plugged that weekend, and it was repaired last Monday by Greenbriar Digging Service in Brookhaven, Lewis said.

The plant treats residential and industrial waste, Lewis said. Brookhaven’s big industries—a Walmart distribution center and M&M Milling, a machine tools manufacturer—don’t create waste to the extent that petrochemical operations dotting Louisiana’s waterways do.

“The Mississippi DEQ alerted the Louisiana DEQ late Friday afternoon, and LDEQ notified our agency that afternoon,” Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Robert Johannessen said. “LDEQ and our department immediately began working on a joint news release that we issued that Saturday morning since the sewage waste was expected to reach Louisiana’s border sometime that Sunday.” He said the recreational advisory issued on Sept. 17 was out as soon as it possibly could have been. The warning was posted to LDHH’s Facebook page at 1:11 p.m. that Saturday. It stated that six million gallons, not 1.3 million, had been released into the east branch of the Bogue Chitto River.

“This was an alert to the public,” Johannessen said last Wednesday. “We knew the sewage release would flow into Louisiana, and we knew that section of the river is used for recreation and that people needed to be notified as quickly as possible. Issuing the news and promoting it on our social media channels were the quickest and most effective ways to get the information to citizens.”

At the best of times, Louisiana’s waterways are contaminated to some extent. Brookhaven’s sewage release could elevate bacteria levels in the Bogue Chitto, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana’s state health officer, said on Sept. 17. Residents were asked to stay out of the water until further notice. Raw-sewage waste can temporarily increase contaminant levels, particularly fecal coliform readings, in the river to levels that are unsafe for swimming and fishing, LDHH said. Microorganisms from that waste can enter cuts and wounds, mouths, noses, eyes and ears. Swallowing polluted water or dipping a head into it can result in a sore throat, cramps, diarrhea or vomiting. Children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible.

Mizell heard about the spill mid-afternoon on, Sept. 17 from a cell-phone app alert, issued by a New Orleans TV station. “I know elderly fishing folks who don’t have phone apps and who pull their meals out of the river,” he said. And he had heard that people were swimming in the river in Franklinton near the Mississippi border on Saturday.

As for who lives near the Bogue Chitto River, Franklinton is almost 52 percent African American. The population of Bogalusa on the Pearl River and near the Bogue Chitto is almost half African American, almost half white, and the rest Native American and Asian.

A rule of thumb is that material flows down the Bogue Chitto at a mile per hour, Mizell said. Franklinton is about 53 miles from Brookhaven. Contaminants from the Brookhaven spill would have entered Louisiana over the weekend if that rule is accurate.

But on Wednesday LDEQ said water sampling it did in the river on Sept. 19, indicated that no contaminants from the spill had entered the state by Monday.

Thomas Thiebaud, director of OHSEP in Washington Parish, said communication by the state to his parish during this event had been awful. “And it’s interesting that the discharge into the river was significantly lowered from the six million gallons the state of Louisiana initially announced,” he said. As for the movement of contaminants, he conjectured that the one-mile-per-hour rule of thumb may apply to floating matter, but not necessarily to contaminants elsewhere in the water. And since the river is thin at Brookhaven, the downward flow of pollutants might have started slowly. But he added that he’s no expert on the river’s current.

The river usually flows gently, with sections of swift water and small rapids, according to the Bogue Chitto Water Park in Mississippi. Water levels can quickly rise or decline based on rainfall.

Mizell said the Bogue Chitto River looked chocolate-colored near Bogalusa last Monday and less sparkling than it had in previous days. He’s not sure he trusts the state’s sampling results. “One of my friends is having private tests done on the water since the spill so we’ll see what they show,” he said.

In St. Tammany, Amy Bouton said Monday that her parish had received no phone calls or reports about the river’s color since the spill.

Mizell’s business is down for now. “We had a parking lot full of people who went tubing Saturday, but we were closed Sunday because of the advisory and have been closed since,” he said last Wednesday. The area’s inner-tubing season ends in October, while kayaking and canoeing continue through the winter.

LDHH will decide when to release its next notice about Bogue Chitto, following water tests by LDEQ, Johannessen said. Meanwhile, “no drinking-water systems in Louisiana depend on this river,” he said. The Bogue Chitto doesn’t supply Mississippi residents with tap water either, MDEQ’s Wilbur said.

At Brookhaven, “nutria, along with alligators, are being trapped near the levee now,” public works director Lewis said last week. “Before this levee breach, we never had a nutria problem at the treatment plant. Alligators haven’t been a problem, but since they’re capable of boring through levees, we’re removing them too.”

This article originally published in the September 26, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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