Cover Story

The Wasteland

by Mary Tutwiler

Gordon Doerle’s Coteau landfill generates truckloads of cash — and enough lawsuits to paper the parish. Gordon Doerle has Hollywood good looks. His tan accentuates silvering hair and the crisp white shirts he’s fond of wearing. In the last decade he transformed a dilapidated old building in the middle of New Iberia’s historic downtown into a dance hall, Bojangles, with a sleek bachelor pad upstairs. When the dance business dropped off, he was ahead of the curve, turning his place into a popular sushi and oyster bar, known as much for its attractive waitresses as it is for Dynamite rolls. He recently sold that property and bought the building two doors down. Neighbors have high hopes that he will again invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and rehab that eyesore into a Main Street attraction. Despite all the good will, Doerle has his detractors. When the neighbors of a different one of his businesses mention his name, it’s sometimes in the company of Old Scratch, another lord of a below-ground domain.

Doerle owns a landfill, and there’s nothing like a dump to stir things up. Vermin. Groundwater contamination. Property values. Aviation safety. Neighbors who don’t know one another organize. Investing businessmen suddenly find themselves shunned. Sentiment inflames public meetings until discourse descends into high school-level name calling. Government tries to walk the line — helping locate sites for waste disposal facilities while trying to placate rural residents. There’s little room for compromise when it comes to people’s back yards. Ultimately, everybody must get sued.

In mid-September, 16th Judicial District Judge Keith Comeaux will decide if Doerle has the right to expand his 14-year-old construction and demolition landfill across parish lines, from St. Martin into Iberia. The Iberia Parish Council has denied him both a permit and a variance to its solid waste siting ordinance, which he needs to proceed. Comeaux will also rule on whether Doerle’s new venture, a garbage pick-up station, is legally operating in Iberia Parish.

Parish government filed suit last year to shut Doerle down. In return, he sued the parish, declaring he has a constitutional right to receive his variance for the landfill, and has asked for unspecified damages as well. The two suits on separate issues have been combined to expedite the process.

If Doerle loses, he says he’ll appeal. If he wins, he says he’ll file civil suits for attorneys fees against each of the 14 Iberia Parish councilmen who voted to sue him. Then he’ll go after state Sen. Troy Hebert, who just passed two bills this legislative session with the intention of quashing the landfill expansion and pick-up station.

Meanwhile, another long-standing suit filed against the state in 1994 by the People Opposing Waste — in an attempt to stop the landfill when it first opened — is still pending.

In 1990, waste issues were a hot topic in Iberia Parish. A decades-long fight to shut down St. Mary Parish hazardous waste recycler Marine Shale was in full swing. Freight trains, which travel right through the heart of New Iberia, carried anything from chemical sludge destined for Marine Shale’s kilns to human waste, on what was dubbed the “Poo-Poo Choo-Choo.” The parish was dotted with sites the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality listed as promiscuous dumps — old unpermitted and unregulated sites the state was attempting to close. And Waste Management had just filed a permit application to build a 400-acre garbage landfill in St. Martin Parish.

With no zoning, Iberia Parish found itself vulnerable to any type of waste facility locating within the parish. Parish government enacted Article VII of its Home Rule Charter, which regulates the storage, treatment, transfer and/or disposal of solid, industrial, hazardous and sewerage waste. In order to locate a waste facility, businesses now need a permit from the parish. St. Martin Parish, in response to the same pressures, enacted a zoning ordinance by the mid-1990s.

Following the closures of the dumps and Hurricane Andrew in 1991, which created mountains of debris, Doerle saw the need for a DEQ-regulated construction and demolition debris landfill. C&D landfills are much easier to permit and build than those that can receive household garbage, what’s known in the industry as putrescible waste. There is no expensive requirement for a liner to protect groundwater from contamination from the waste, and buffer and cover requirements are much less stringent. Doerle’s first choice for a site was family land north of the city of New Iberia, adjacent to the parish’s livestock arena, SugArena. He applied to the parish and received a local permit to build a landfill there but chose not to go forward. In 1993 he bought approximately 15 acres, just across the parish line in St. Martin Parish and right across La. 88 from Iberia Parish’s airport. When he filed his permit application to DEQ, the surrounding neighbors formed an organization, People Opposing Waste, to fight him.

The neighbors were concerned with the devaluation of property and quality of life, as well as the contamination of groundwater, and feared that the landfill would attract vermin, including birds that might obstruct the runway at the Acadiana Regional Airport. ARA has one of the longest landing strips in the state, designed to handle military, cargo and commercial jets. The fear was that a bird in flight, drawn to the landfill or its oxidation ponds, could be sucked into the jet engines and bring a plane down.

POW petitioned the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration to join the suit, but the FAA did not consider a C&D landfill a threat because there was no putrescible waste to draw wildlife to the site.

Without any local requirements from St. Martin Parish, Doerle received his DEQ permit and constructed Gordon’s Disposal and Landfill in 1994. According to POW spokesperson Mary Clement, over the years DEQ issued multiple compliance orders after finding prohibited putrescible waste in the landfill. But Clement says no significant regulatory action was taken, and Doerle continued to receive permit modifications to increase the height of his waste pile. Doerle meantime boosted his business by offering waste hauling services. He currently holds the yard waste and debris collection contracts with the city of New Iberia, as well as its storm recovery contract.

In 2004, with Doerle’s 10-year permit set to expire, he filed to renew his application with DEQ and to expand from approximately 15 acres in St. Martin Parish to 60 adjacent acres he bought in Iberia. DEQ deemed his application technically correct — except for one glitch. He needed a permit from Iberia Parish government.

And that’s when the waste hit the fan.

Iberia Parish Councilman Naray Hulin represents the Coteau area, where Doerle wants to expand. Hulin has listened, impotently, to his constituents complain about the landfill for over a decade. Finally, he could do something about it. “We have a  responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that those types of facilities are located in those areas where it’s not going to be detrimental to the quality of life,” he says. “Or hurt the airport. That’s the major issue with us."

Iberia’s ordinances prohibit siting a waste facility within a one-mile radius of a residence or business, and also prohibit the siting of any activity that would negatively affect the operations of the airport.

Doerle’s landfill is located approximately 2,800 feet from the end of the ARA runway, right in the path of the approach. “C&D landfills are an issue,” says new ARA Director Jason Devillier, “because over time, they build up in height. The planes coming and going need a safe corridor to get in and out of the airport. Any type of buildings or structures, berms, things like that — we don’t want to penetrate our protected air space.”

Devillier says the expansion of the landfill could cause the FAA to discontinue federal funding to the airport — money that pays for necessities such as the aviation tower and runway maintenance. “If the tower closes,” he says, “it does not preclude planes from landing, but there’s a comfort zone for a lot of the corporate pilots, airlines and freight operators. They have company policies that require them to go into an airport with an operating control tower. So while it wouldn’t close us down in the literal sense, it may shut down traffic.”

Tenants at the airport complex include AvEx, which paints plane exteriors. “AvEx has contracts with some airlines as well as FedEx,” says Devillier. “If FedEx has a company policy that they only go into ariports with control towers and we lost the tower, they wouldn’t let the airplanes come in here.” Other tenants include Air Logistics and Bristow Academy, a helicopter training school. “That’s 110 jobs,” adds Hulin, “just at AvEx. Offshore Logistics just spent millions on renovations, and they’re concerned that we might lose instrument landing. So it all hinges on the economic vitality of the airport.”

Hulin presented his case to the council, which refused to grant Doerle a permit to operate his landfill on the Iberia Parish acreage at the foot of the runway. Doerle, who is both hard headed and resourceful, thought he figured out a way to get around the parish’s laws. In 2006, he opened a pick-up station on the land he had purchased in Iberia Parish.

A pick-up station is a place where garbage trucks drive up a ramp and dump their loads into the bed of an 18-wheeler. When it’s full, the truck hauls the garbage to permitted solid waste landfills.

Doerle’s pick-up station is turning into a gold mine. He says there are haulers bringing in garbage from St. Martin, St. Mary, Lafayette, Vermilion, Iberia and St. Landry parishes. And the kicker is that pick-up stations don’t require a DEQ permit. However, the Iberia Parish Council says that the pick-up station does require a parish solid waste permit, which Doerle is ignoring.

The FAA has also gotten involved. In a February 2006 letter addressed to the Secretary of DEQ, the FAA raised strong opposition to the operation of the pick-up station. “We consider a landfill handling putrescible waste within 10,000 feet of a runway end used by turbine-powered aircraft incompatible with aviation. ...The landfill is a potential hazard to aviation because of aeronautical obstructions and wildlife. We ask that you correct this situation or have operations terminated at Gordon Doerle Landfill immediately.”

Gordon Doerle

photo by Terri Fensel

Doerle offered to totally enclose his pick-up station in exchange for his landfill permit, but the Iberia Parish Council wanted him to relocate the station and refused the permit. “What’s going to happen to my million that it cost me to build that thing?” asks Doerle. “Who’s going to pay me back? You think Iberia Parish is going to give me a million to move?” Doerle dug in, and the council filed suit. He fired back with another lawsuit for a landfill expansion permit.

Doerle’s argument is that there are two other existing C&D landfills in Iberia Parish that are in violation of the siting ordinances. Both of them, one owned by David Trahan and the other owned by Iberia Parish, are in violation by being within a mile of residences, and the parish-owned landfill is within 7,000 feet of the airport runway. Both landfills, which precede Doerle’s 2004 application, were given variances in order to operate.

“We’re claiming it’s unconstitutional. They can’t do it for one and not the other,” says Doerle. “The FAA has no regulatory authority over a pick-up station, and they have no authority over a C&D landfill. Now they’ve voiced their opinion that they don’t want it there. What’s ironic, we’ve been there for 14 years, we have letters from the FAA that say C&D landfills don’t pose threats to the airport. They even acknowledged when we got our permit that they had no problem with a C&D landfill. So now with all the politics ... the airport’s crying wolf. There’s birds, but they’ve never documented any birds. They’ve never had any studies or anything. You can drive up any time of the day, and you won’t see any birds. You’ll see more on their property with the cane.” Tall sugar cane surrounds the airport, most of it raised by farmers who lease land from the airport authority. When the fields are plowed, cattle egrets by the hundreds follow the tractor, far more than ever land on his property, claims Doerle.

One Iberia Parish Council member, Troy Comeaux, agrees with Doerle. “I’ve been the lone vote,” he says. “To treat Gordon, or for that matter anyone, differently is inconsistent and unconstitutional. We’ve raised a wildlife attractant issue, but I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of birds attracted to the acres of agriculture with my own eyes. That’s right across the street from Gordon. The parish and the airport turn a blind eye to that.”

Comeaux says the parish is sending out the wrong message when it comes to attracting business. “Here’s Gordon, a solid businessman, and we’re trying to run him off. I also represent the city, which has a contract with Gordon. If we shut him down, it’s going to cost the city taxpayers more. Naray has done a wonderful job representing his people, but no one has listened at all to the possibility of compromise."

Hulin argues that when public hearings were held about Trahan’s and the parish’s own C&D landfills, no one spoke up, including the FAA, so both were granted permit variances to operate. “Gordon over here,” he says, “we’ve got 543 people who signed a petition that don’t want it there.”

“What we have is emotions and politics,” Doerle says. “We meet what is required by the state. You take the politics out and the emotions out and follow the law and it’s granted. The parish landfill is in violation of their own ordinances. This is why there is such a big conflict. You give yourselves [a permit], but you can’t give us one.”

Even if he loses the fight to get his landfill permitted, Doerle thinks he’s in a winning position. “Here’s the whole deal, if I lose in my suit against the permit expansion, that doesn’t stop my pick-up station. They can’t shut me down on the pick-up station. So what they’re doing is not accomplishing what they have been complaining about. The C&D landfill has never been a problem. They’re trying to throw all that together and they’re denying the expansion. But it doesn’t stop my pick-up. There’s nothing that can shut me down.”

In June, Sen. Troy Hebert passed a bill that gives DEQ the ability “to recognize and adhere to” FAA guidelines before issuing solid waste permits. A second bill, designed for Iberia Parish only, forbids the construction or expansion of solid waste facilities within 5,000 feet of an airport.

“Only in Louisiana will we locate a landfill at the end of a runway,” says Hebert. “How crazy is that?”

In the past, the DEQ may have ignored the local ordinance and the objections of the FAA, but Hebert senses change in Baton Rouge. “I commend this DEQ and this administration for not taking the approach taken in the past. We’re not going to do things that don’t make sense any more. That’s how we begin doing things that bring our credibility back.”

Doerle however, says Hebert’s involvement is merely political payback for the senatorial race. “Troy only did it because I didn’t support him [for senator]. I supported Jeff Landry. It’s just like high school.” Doerle says if his permit is denied by DEQ, that it comes from a shift in the political climate, not the facts or the laws. “The change is that you got the same little group [POW] that has been pushing Naray and all of them to fight this thing. They knew between themselves they had no power until they got the FAA involved and they got the parish council involved. This is so stupid. Naray’s doing it because it’s his district and now it’s becoming a personal vendetta. This thing was simply a ploy to run me out of business.”

Iberia Parish Assistant District Attorney Eric Duplantis says parish government is well within its legal rights. “I feel comfortable that we have the authority to site the expansion of his C&D landfill just like we have the authority over siting of his pick-up station. And whether or not to grant a permit variance is a policy decision the council makes.”

At this point, both sides are ready for the courts to resolve the issue, but Doerle is also itching for revenge. “If we win this case,” he says, “which I feel strongly we will, I’m going to file a civil suit on all of the councilmen, all of them that voted [against him], which is all but Troy Comeaux. Not one of those council members ever came to my property, to the landfill, saw there wasn’t any birds. They’re just voting based on Naray’s recommendations and the handful of people that are opposing it. And these people are costing me tons of money for attorneys and stuff. I can win the case, and I can’t collect a penny because you can’t get money from the government. But if you do a civil suit, the individual councilmen, they’re liable personally for it. It’s strictly a political thing they’re playing. If we win this thing, DEQ has to issue the permit. Then we have to fight the state. But that’s not going to affect the pick-up station, which is what they’ve been bitching about.”

“I’ve been there for 14 years,” Doerle adds, “and it’s never been a problem before I put the pick-up station. We offered to compromise, to close it in under roof if they would drop this thing, but we haven’t heard a word. Now if they lose their case, they’ll probably be coming to me and say look, ‘We need you to close it in.’ And I’m going to tell them to go to hell.”