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Environment| Environment

Environment| Environment

Should Capitol LakesThe four connected lakes located behind the State Capitol building, Baton Rouge, should be considered hazardous waste sites due to their contamination with cancer-causing chemical.

This was the question that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality quietly questioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency in March 2021 after quietly concluding that it was time for the agency to reverse its 2002 decision that lakes pollution was too low not to pose health risks.

A spokesperson for the EPA confirmed this week that the agency is investigating whether or not to address the potentially hazardous chemicals in the water. If enough contamination is found at the site, the EPA could include them in its Superfund program. This program cleans hazardous sites.

Environmental Protection Agency officials will sample for PCBs and pesticides in the green portion of this map to try to identify sources of t…

Jennah Durant, spokesperson for the agency, stated that the agency’s review will include an expanded inspection of the site, which will include sampling for contaminants in areas that may have been overlooked in previous investigations.

She added that drainage paths that flow into Capitol Lakes are another area that will be sampled. Durant said that the agency plans to collect sediment samples and fish tissue samples. A report on its findings could be published in the late summer.

If the lakes or rainwater runoff that comes into them are found to pose a threat, money could come from a trust account used to pay for Superfund site cleanups. The federal government would then attempt to recover the costs from those who could be responsible for the contamination.

Sharon Weston Broome, Baton Rouge Mayor-President spoke out saying that although the EPA did no notify the city of the changes in status for the lake, city officials are not surprised.

Mark Armstrong stated that it is old news that the lakes have been contaminated. We support any steps taken to improve the environment.

Currently, 13 Superfund sites exist in the state. There are three more sites that are being considered for Superfund listing. Since 1980, 13 Superfund sites have been removed from the state’s list.

An angler fly fishing at Capitol Lake on Jan. 8, 2022. The Louisiana Departments of Environmental Quality and Health have posted no fishing si…

The Capitol Lakes formed between 1901-1908 when Grassie Bayou was drained near its Mississippi River entrance, creating a drainage sump of 4 square miles in what would become the state capitol region of Baton Rouge.

Since then, the lake system has been a collection area for urban water runoff. It receives drainage from two unnamed canals. The only outlet to the lakes is the parish pumping station, which empties into the river.

Concerns about the lake’s pollution date back to the 1970s. A 1981 investigation found that the Kansas City Southern Railroad was a source for oil contamination. In 1983, more testing revealed that oily wastewater contained polychlorinated Biphenyls (or PCBs) toxic chemicals that were used to oil electric transformers. These chemicals were found in a drainage channel near a Westinghouse Electric Corp. transformer repair shop on Choctaw Drive.

It was determined that contamination was due to both spillage and a leaky underground storage tank. The PCBs were also found in runoff water, canal water, and the central part of the main Capitol Lake.

A warning sign is posted on the bank of Capitol Lake explaining an existing health advisory concerning the body of water, Wednesday, January 1…

An extended investigation into the pollution of lakes resulted in compliance orders and enforcement actions against several corporations, including Furlow-Laughlin Engineering Company Inc., American Asphalt Corporation, the Kansas City railroad, Furlow Laughlin Equipment Co. Inc., Furlow Laughlin Equipment Company Inc., and the city of Kansas City. According to a 2018 state water quality review, however, none of these facilities were found to be the source for PCBs.

The report stated that the Westinghouse site was not the only source of PCB contamination. It also mentioned the possible sources of contamination at the Louisiana Division of Administration Surplus Property Yard (U.S. Government Surplus Property Yard) and the Louisiana National Guard Armory (all located east of Capitol Lake).

By the end 1986, Westinghouse had removed PCB contaminated soils from its land and taken other measures to keep its runoff from reaching lakes.

A woman enjoys a moment of peace and quiet in the shade while talking on the phone, Friday, April 23, 2021, along the walking path that surrou…

PCB levels were detected in 2002 after sampling of the lake water, lake sediments and the tissues of a variety of fish species found that they exceeded the federal Food and Drug Administration’s limit. The health advisory forbidding the consumption of fish from the lakes was issued later.

DEQ issued a statement of no further actions in June 2002. This stated that contaminate levels in the lake system sediments as well as edible fish tissues will continue to decline over time. This is consistent with the experience of the past ten years.

Despite the 2002 decision, the Louisiana Department of Health and DEQ maintained a ban on the consumption of fish from the lake due to possible contamination with PCBs. Additional fish sampling was done in 1994 and 2018, to confirm the ban.

A water snake moves through the leaves of the Capitol Lake band at sunset, Wednesday January 19, 2022 in Baton Rouge, La. (Staff …

Keep up-to-date with the latest news about Louisiana’s coast, and the environment. Register today.

An assortment of signs still remain at various locations along the shorelines declaring the lakes as a no fishing area.

Gregory Langley, a spokesperson for the state environmental quality, stated that the agency was working closely with EPA to determine the lake’s current pollution levels. He also pointed out documents in the state’s online database for more details.

Langley stated that if anything changes, all parties will be notified.

Two short letters in DEQs database dated March 23, 2021 address the decision of the state to contact EPA.

The first is a one page internal memo signed by Estuardo Silva, administrator of state agencys remediation division. It announces the reversal and cancellation of the 2002 no further actions decision.

According to the memo, it was assumed that natural attenuation would lead to a slight decrease in sediments and fish tissue over time. Recent LDEQ sampling has shown, however, that the water body’s concentrations of contaminants of concern are still too high to be used.

Attenuation refers to the process of converting contaminant chemicals into safer or less dangerous substances. Older pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin, or the insulating compound PCB can slowly be broken down naturally by sunlight or living organisms when they are in contact with water or soils.

The memo stated that the department would transfer it to an EPA Region 6 team to evaluate the site further. As a result, the site was reverted to a confirmed contamination status according to state records.

The second document was a correspondence to Susan Weber chief of EPAs Regional 6 assessment and enforcement branch. It stated that the state has conducted several investigations of the lakes and that current information indicates that this area may be better addressed through the federal Superfund program. The note was three-paragraph and pointed EPA officials towards the documents in state’s online database.

The database also contained an EPA form signed Jan. 11, by Cheston Hill, Louisiana Public Lands Administrator. This granted EPA staffers access the large area of state-owned Baton Rouge land, including the four lakes and properties around them.

The database also contains photos taken by DEQ inspectors November 2021 and Jan 2022. These photos show a man fishing in one lake, his fishing line and hooks caught in a nearby tree, and a drainage pump station that drains water into the Mississippi River.

DEQ didn’t announce its revised opinion on the lake systems last year. It did not say that it requested a Superfund investigation or that it gave the green light to the EPA to inspect the lakes earlier in the month.

Trash floats near rocks at sunset on Capitol Lake, Wednesday January 19, 2022 in Baton Rouge (La).(Staff photo taken by Hilary Scheinuk

Baton Rouge Audubon Society was also informed by the changes. It is currently working with state officials and other organizations in an effort to update the state’s 20-year old birding trail system. Erik Johnson, director of conservation science, said that the trails along Capitol Lake were being considered for this system.

Capitol Lakes is a popular destination for birdwatching, both locals and tourists. It offers great views of a wide variety of waterbirds, he said. However, contamination of the lakes remains a concern. Imagine children playing on the lawns adjacent to the lakes while on family vacations.

Langley also stated that DEQ did no notify the state Legislature of these changes. The 1997 Legislature added to the environmental regulations of the states a section that required that the lakes were cleaned up “immediately”.

The legislature declares that the state prioritizes the cleanup and removal of contaminants in the lakes’ sediments. The Department of Environmental Quality should act quickly to demand that this cleanup begin immediately.

A flock of waterfowl, including American White Pelicans, snowy egrets and ibis, congregate on Capitol Lake at sunset, Wednesday, January 19, 2…

This section provided that DEQ was required to issue monthly status reports on the remediation efforts of the lakes. The reports were to be delivered by the governor, the House, Senate environment committees, speaker of the House, president and senator representing the lake area.

On May 26, 1999, the last of these reports was sent to state officials. It informed them about the publication of new surveys in the next month. This was the basis for the 2002 no further actions status change. Langley stated that no further reports were filed in the wake of the status change.

A spool made of discarded wiring can be seen on Capitol Lake’s surface, Wednesday, January 19, 2022 in Baton Rouge (La).(Staff photo by Hilary S…

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