For the Harper and Salles families in St. Tammany Parish, the cypress swamp behind their homes is an idyllic outdoor playground for their children where they catch crawfish, throw out lines for catfish and splash around in Hickory Creek, a meandering stream that feeds into Old River and, eventually, the West Pearl.
“A cypress swamp with that dark-brewed ice tea water is just pretty, nice to look at,” David Salles said.
But sometimes when the Pearl River area residents gaze out at the scenic creek, the water looks far different from that normal clear, tea color, and more like someone poured milk into the stream, Clay Harper said.
Salles calls it the “not-so-chocolatey milk.”
They blame a large gravel pit upstream owned by Arcosa Aggregates, which has been the subject of several complaints to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in recent years about discharges from its ponds.
Harper, who has posted videos on social media showing the opaque water, complained to DEQ on March 8, when the water clouded up. According to a DEQ report, Arcosa said that it had a levee breach from March 5-7 and had put up temporary fortifications with more planned.
But Harper said that the water clouded up again last weekend.
The gravel pit does not have a permit to discharge wastewater, according to DEQ documents.
But documents dating back to last year show overflows from previously mined pits on the property that are used as retention ponds with levees around them. The overflows were blamed on heavy rain and levee breaches.
“Arcosa’s environmental stewardship and sustainability initiatives focus on reducing our impact on the environment,” the company said in a prepared statement Friday. “Extreme rainfall conditions and flooding of the Pearl River Basin into our Pearl River facility at times can result in stormwater runoff. Arcosa has taken a number of measures to mitigate these events, including closing operations during high water events to reduce any discharge from our property.”
The company added that it is working with DEQ on additional solutions.
DEQ inspectors visited the gravel pit in May and July of last year in response to complaints. Their reports show that wastewater was discharged into a stream known as Maple Slough and from there into wetlands that flow into the West Pearl River, a scenic river.