At first it sounded like a pretty good deal to residents in the area surrounding Lafayette Consolidated Government’s massive Coulee Ile des Cannes flood control project near Scott. The contractor, Rigid Constructors, would pay them to take dirt excavated for the detention ponds that they could then resell.
Pretty soon mountains were popping up at various locations in the vicinity of the ponds. But the win-win they initially were sold on hasn’t worked out so well.
The dirt has become a nuisance, seeping into waterways or onto neighboring properties. At least one property owner says Rigid Constructors broke promises about work it would do to manage runoff, and another says the soil has no market value and can’t be sold. On top of that, residents who took the dirt got an unwelcome letter last month from LCG’s own Environmental Quality Division imposing a deadline to come into compliance with the permitting requirements of LCG’s stormwater ordinance.
And while LCG has scrambled to hammer out a resolution among the parties, tamping down another headache caused by one of the Guillory administration’s signature flood control projects, landowners involved will likely be stuck with high bills and unmarketable dirt.
“Basically, it’s not good for anything. It’s not good for construction purposes, not really good for fill dirt in a yard because there’s too much clay in it. You almost can’t give it away,” says Joey Lagneaux, a property owner who took on 400,000 cubic yards of spoil, earning $300,000 on the deal for storage on his family’s land.
He bore tested the dirt, and it came back worthless. He faces steep costs to get the heap into compliance. A contractor quoted him over $100,000.
Even with the handsome sum paid to take the dirt, the cost and responsibility of LCG’s environmental requirements have spoiled the deal.
LCG’s environmental division is requiring the landowners to submit a stormwater pollution prevention plan (SWPPP) that will ensure measures remain in place to control and reduce the discharge of soil so it doesn’t enter the storm drain system, which can cause changes in water chemistry (temperature, oxygen, sunlight) and negatively impact water quality, fish and wildlife. The penalties for non-compliance can be steep, ranging from $250 per day per offense to $1,000 a day per offense for three or more noncompliances.
“There are several issues that are under investigation. … I can’t give more details right now.”DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley, on potential penalties for Rigid Constructors
As part of the permitting process, landowners also have to file paperwork with Louisiana DEQ, which confirmed to The Current this week that multiple issues involving Rigid are under investigation, though it would not be specific. LCG’s environmental division has agreed to hold the property owners’ hands through the SWPPP process if necessary, and has been granting extensions upon request.
Property owners argue these issues should have been Rigid’s responsibility from the outset — though the two-page contract they signed complicates that question.
LCG’s environmental division told the landowners that in an ideal situation, the contractor “would have worked with you all to set up stormwater [documentation] and erosion control measures.” Both the property owner and the site operator can be held liable, the email provided by a landowner reads. It is unknown whether Rigid would still be considered the operator “[in the eyes of the law] since this is a stockpile and not an active construction site,” wrote Regulatory Compliance Supervisor Jackie Vargas-Beitia.
Still, the landowners affected claim Rigid was “reckless” in how it dumped the dirt, placing it too close to drainage ditches for instance, and documents reviewed by The Current show that the dirt contractor may have violated LCG’s standard specifications for infrastructure and its own contract with LCG in the way it executed the stockpile agreements.
“Rigid knew that [runoff] was going to be an issue,” says Lagneaux, who on Sept. 14 got a quote of $100,450 from a local contractor to bring his stockpiles into compliance. “And if they didn’t know that, they shouldn’t be in that line of business.”
They were sold visions of kayaks and fishing. Two years later, they’re living with the consequences of a colossal unfinished project.
Nick Duhon signed a contract with Rigid CEO Cody Fortier in early 2022, agreeing to be paid $5,000 to store dirt on each of his 12 acres of crawfish ponds, and assume ownership and liability of the stockpiles. By early August, runoff was getting into a nearby parish canal.
Rigid didn’t erect silt fencing till Nov. 10 of that year, and has fallen short of the contract’s requirements for perimeter collection swales, Duhon maintains, noting Fortier also made verbal promises to ensure containment.
“They started the process but never finished it,” Duhon says. The landowner took in about 165,000 cubic yards of dirt that included pockets of ground up trees.
Duhon says he and various Rigid officials, including Fortier, have been going back and forth over the past year about addressing the problems. Duhon was paid $30,000 upfront and is still owed the $30,000 balance (he got significantly less attractive deal than the Lagneaux family), but says he won’t accept the final payment from Rigid until LCG says he is in compliance.
“I sat there and listened to him say, ‘This is an LCG project. We’re going to do everything by the book,’” Duhon recalls. The landowner says he was able to sell “a couple thousand yards, not enough to put a dent in the pile” and would like the dirt off his land because neighbors and family members are upset about the runoff. He says it may cost as much as $30,000 just to move it.
Email communication between the stockpile landowners and LCG’s environmental division reveals that the division learned of the overall drainage project itself when complaints from area residents started coming in, just as it learned of the problems with the stockpiles. A map of the stockpiles provided by one of the landowners shows that a Fortier company, CF LLC, also was issued a noncompliance letter. In all, it appears that six letters went out.
Rigid cut deals left and right to get rid of the dirt last year, seemingly dumping so much of the spoils with little to no attention to controlling it. And while LCG’s environmental division appears late to the game, that is the main problem it is immediately trying to address: runoff from the dirt piles its own contractor created.
Residents have also consistently complained about air pollution from the dust that’s stirred up by the piles and pond digging, especially during drought conditions, and thick smoke from the near-constant tree burning last year.
Similar to Homewood, which is Lafayette’s largest-ever detention pond project, the conditions at the project near Scott rendered neighbors’ outdoor areas and swimming pools nearly unusable.
“We tolerated dense smoke from burn piles and problems with drainage,” one resident who says he lives on the “banks” of the Duhon Road detention ponds told The Current in an August email. “Glad that the ponds are no longer being dug; however, problems still exist.”
Haste makes waste
Rigid has had a lucrative and controversial relationship with LCG. The company was awarded a $390,000 contract in December 2021 that within months ballooned into a $3.8 million secret drainage operation in St. Martin Parish, an eye-brow raising move LCG’s own auditors (and its own lawyers) say violated public bid law.
Rigid was awarded the contract on the Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project — which includes the massive series of detention ponds on Coulee Ile Des Cannes and on the Vermilion River at the Homewood site near Milton — in part premised on its ability to deliver quickly.
A former LCG official says he experienced a level of frustration among departments and even some of LCG’s consulting engineers because of Guillory’s “go, go, go” attitude that meant everything was hurried through without internal and other required reviews.
“Everything was by fiat, based on time and not process,” the ex-official recalls. “You’re the CEO. You’ve got to be able to discern between reality and wants. Some things take longer, and they take longer either because of federal, state, local policies, laws. You’re not expected to understand all those, but the person you’re asking is supposed to understand all those and give you the timeline and the plan.
“No one wants to tell Josh no,” the source says.
Much of the confusion points back to the Guillory administration’s haste in undertaking the largest flood control project in LCG’s history. The speed, which the mayor-president has defended as his “new pace of government,” has nevertheless led to costly litigation and an erstwhile funding impasse with state government, which sunk tens of millions into Bayou Vermilion Flood Control.
LCG has outrun permitting requirements, including its own.
Like it did at Homewood, LCG jumped the gun by starting work at the Coulee Ile des Cannes site last year before getting clearance from the US Army Corps of Engineers — and only later asked for jurisdictional determination while requesting a “no permit required letter” from the Corps, public records show.
Rigid also failed to submit a SWPPP, the same plan required of dirt buyers, and file with state DEQ for the Coulee Ile des Cannes project.
In what appears to be a near duplicate failure to secure permits for the coulee job, Rigid was again cited by LDEQ in July on a non-related project for not obtaining an SWPPP and failing to file with the state when it moved a significant amount of dirt from LCG’s River Oaks drainage project on Surrey Street to about 11 acres of private property near Kaliste Saloom and Hugh Wallis roads (adjacent to the Woodspring Suites hotel). The property is owned by businessman Jeremiah Supple, who tells The Current he paid Rigid $150,000 for approximately 30,000-35,000 cubic yards of dirt and labor to level the acreage. “I’m growing hay,” Supple, a Guillory supporter, says of his plans for the property.
LDEQ spokesman Gregory Langley tells The Current no further action was taken after Rigid filed the permit application with the state. Supple says he was unaware of the dispute with LDEQ.
“There are several issues that are under investigation,” Langley confirms when asked about potential penalties being assessed to Rigid. “I can’t give more details right now,” he adds, advising to keep an eye on the agency interest number assigned to the Homewood site.
For its part, Rigid Constructors claims the firm has dealt “fairly” with the owners, despite at first denying that any disputes had arisen when first contacted by The Current for this story.
Landowner Duhon insists that he has tried for a year to get Rigid officials to address problems with his dirt.
Rigid Constructors’ attorney, Murphy Foster, told The Current on Sept. 15 that Rigid was “unaware of any disputes.”
Asked to address the contradiction, Foster said three days later that Rigid CEO Cody Fortier and Nick Duhon were “working amicably,” but that same afternoon another Rigid official chalked the disputes up to a “misunderstanding” between LCG departments about what needed to happen with the stockpiles in an email to the Lagneauxs.
After weeks of back and forth between landowners and LCG officials, however, Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux appears to have stepped in and convened a meeting Sept. 21 to address the situation.
The outcome, according to Jennifer Lagneaux, Joey’s sister and a co-owner on the Lagneaux property, is that Rigid will do the initial cleanup. “Chad is assigning responsibility to Rigid for them to do the initial cleanup and erosion control measures for all of the stockpiles,” she tells The Current, noting the compromise agreement was explained to her verbally and in a Sept. 22 email from the LCG’s environmental division.
“Considering the scope of the [detention] project was to implement improved drainage,” says Jennifer, “Rigid was extremely reckless with dumping the dirt.”
Neither attorney Foster nor Fortier responded to an email asking them to confirm whether Rigid has agreed to the cleanup.
Still, the landowners say compliance will be costly, and their problems are far from over. “Proper, long-term mitigation requires moving over 28,000 [cubic yards] of dirt along 1,500 [feet of] road that runs alongside the canal, as well as the laying of double net straw and hydroseeding,” says Jennifer.
In what they view as another blindside, the landowners recently learned the stockpiles need to be permitted as a commercial enterprise, which means, among other costs, erecting a 6.5-foot privacy fence around their perimeter and paying more in property taxes.
Nepveaux did not respond to emailed questions about the stockpile agreements, and Environmental Quality Manager Bess Foret did not respond to questions about the noncompliance letters.
“The only outcome that will please me is if LCG buys this liability and pile of clay,” Jennifer Lagneaux says.