Cover Story

The Pits

by Walter Pierce

How dirt mining operations in Lafayette Parish have residents on edge and officials digging for solutions  Don’t let the old expression “dirt cheap” fool you — dirt isn’t cheap. It’s big business in a parish like Lafayette that has been expanding exponentially since shaking off the oil bust of the mid 1980s. Most every new shopping center, neighborhood, hospital, overpass and cinema that goes up needs a level pad of dirt and, to borrow from another old expression, that dirt doesn’t grow on trees. It comes out of the ground — from borrow pits, as they’re known in the jargon of ordinance. And Lafayette Parish has an ordinance to control them: 059-93. The ordinance defines a borrow pit as “a manmade, relatively deep hole in the ground used to extract sand, gravel, clay or dirt.” One such pit off Moss Street in north Lafayette Parish has become a bone of contention among residents, government officials and the property owner.

“Every clear-thinking person, when they look at that situation, they know it’s not right. But it’s there,” acknowledges Lloyd Rochon, Carencro city manager. Rochon and Mayor Glenn Brasseaux know about the big pit off Moss Street because residents who live nearby have been complaining about it for years — complaining about a perceived threat to their water supply and a threat to the safety of children in the area.

Excavation of the pit began about 14 years ago, before Lafayette city-parish consolidation. Carencro annexed the area within the last five years, inheriting the hole in the ground. Many residents who live nearby are also fuming, in part because of what it has become, but also because of how it came to be: a big pit from a little pond. “All we’re asking the guy to do is admit it’s a dirt operation, it’s not a pond, and it must fall under guidelines and standards for that type of operation,” says Bob Gardes, who lives on nearby Smith Reed Road. “Now that you’ve made it that type of operation, you need to protect it from the public.”

Records suggest it was sleight of land that led to the big pit.

A second excavation project (foreground) southwest of the big pit has some neighbors and government officials feeling déjà vu.

Photo by Robin May

On June 20, 1995, one year before city-parish consolidation, Lafayette Parish Government engineer William Campbell sent a letter to Roy Mouton, whose address in the document obtained by The Independent Weekly is listed as 3810 Moss St. — the same address in the phone book for Mouton Sand & Gravel — granting Mouton permission to “excavate a fish pond.” Campbell references a June 13, 1995, letter Mouton sent to parish government describing the project and seeking permission to proceed.

However, Campbell also enclosed with the letter a copy of Parish Ordinance 059-93 — the so-called “good neighbor ordinance” that is still on the books for Lafayette Consolidated Government. “It should be understood that this Letter of No Objection is furnished only for the hauling of dirt from the proposed fish pond on North Moss St. Extension within the limits of your property,” Campbell writes. “It shall also be understood that nothing contained in this letter shall be construed to exempt you from any other provisions of Ordinance No. 059-93 ...” The ordinance has requirements for green belts, buffers and, in some cases, fences surrounding such projects. But 059-93 does not apply to ponds. “If he had classified this as a borrow pit, it would have had to comply with these regulations,” observes Rochon, former Lafayette city clerk before city-parish consolidation.

Campbell retired from LCG in 2003. Mouton’s “fish pond” apparently fell off everyone’s radar after city-parish consolidation. And it kept getting bigger. “That’s the last I recall of it,” says Campbell, contacted at home. Campbell acknowledges that if Mouton had approached the parish about excavating a borrow pit, 059-93 would have kicked in. “The requirements would have been a little bit stricter,” Campbell says. “He would have had to stay so many feet or a good ways away from the neighboring property and there might have been some side-slope requirements back then.”

Mouton was given permission to excavate a pond, but, as Campbell indicates in the 1995 letter, the dirt had to remain “within the limits of your property.” According to Jim Parker with LCG’s Planning & Zoning Commission, the movement of dirt from an excavation is a good indicator of the purpose of the excavation. “If you came to me and said you need to dig out a 100 by 100 pond, 12 feet deep, and it would be done in three weeks, all the dirt’s going to stay on your property, in my mind there’s not much of a question as to what you’re up to,” Parker says. “I don’t see it as a commercial mining operation. You’re certainly not going to sell the dirt. I guess we have to view every request on its own weight.”

Roy Mouton, the owner of the pit, did not return several calls seeking comment for this story. A Mouton Sand & Gravel employee says he is out of state on vacation until mid August.

A residential development called The Bluffs is going up literally feet from the big pit. The developer installed a fence to keep the pit out of view.

Photo by Robin May

Log on to Google Earth and search 5349 Moss St., Lafayette, LA, and there it is — a giant east-west gash in the earth on the west side of Moss. Look closely and see the dump trucks parked on the eastern edge and earth movers inside the pit on the west side, mere specks. Based on an estimation of the pit’s current size and comparing it to the satellite photo at Google Earth, taken 18 months or more ago, the project is now roughly 1,000 feet long and nearly 200 feet wide. By comparison, the State Capitol in Baton Rouge is 450 feet high. Two Capitol buildings could be laid top to bottom in the pit with room to spare. The tallest building in the state — One Shell Square in New Orleans, 697 feet — would fit comfortably in the pit. “The big one’s something else, huh? Sacre bleu!” jokes Parker. “Makes the Grand Canyon blush.”

Rochon also knows of the big pit. “I’ve been there,” he says. “You’re going to be shocked when you go out there.”

Rochon and Parker, like virtually everyone else in project permitting in Lafayette Parish, have seen the big pit, which is something of a secret celebrity for the sheer size it has grown to over the last decade and more. When I told Parker I was going to see the thing for myself, his response was, “Good luck. Stay away from the sides.” It was good advice.

At the rim of the northwest corner of the pit one stands over a sheer drop of roughly 60 feet. Straight down. Five stories. It’s a whale of a fish pond. “That’s how these things happen. They start off small,” says Rochon.

As it turns out, north Lafayette Parish has long been a popular area for borrow pits. Satellite photos of the area north of Lafayette and east of Carenco show what appear to be several such dirt-mining operations, as well as numerous lakes that were likely the sites of pits long ago. “We hadn’t had any new starts, any new pits, but I have gotten a number of calls on pits that’s in the district,” says District 2 LCG Councilman Jay Castille, who represents the area, “and the reason they’re doing it in north Lafayette is, it’s such good dirt and it’s wide open pasture land in so many areas.”

The area lies on the Coteau Ridge — a spine of higher ground that snakes its way through parts of Acadiana, creating gently rolling hills and picturesque farm and pasture land. And it stands to reason in low-lying south Louisiana: If you excavate on a hill rather than at sea level, you’ll get a lot more dirt and sand before hitting the water table.

But these excavation projects also lie on top of the Chicot Aquifer, a main source of water for hundreds of thousands of residents in southwest Louisiana, and some living near the pit, especially those on well water, worry that it is jeopardizing their health. “There’s always some reason to be concerned and vigilant,” says Dr. Tim Duex, a geology professor at UL Lafayette who has co-authored papers on the Chicot Aquifer. “But unless there’s something that’s really bad that’s going into the pit, there’s probably not a whole lot of concern.” John Lovelace with the U.S. Geological Survey office in Baton Rouge speculates the big pit off Moss Street may well be into the upper sands of the aquifer. USGS data for the region put the water table in north Lafayette Parish at 50 to 60 feet beneath the ground. But Duex says as long as the project is purely excavation, residents shouldn’t worry. “In order for it to be a concern there would have to be something that was hazardous or poisonous or a chemical that could go from the pit into the aquifer,” Duex explains, “and if you’re just excavating it’s possible but not very likely.”

That’s little comfort for residents, who have pressed the state Department of Environmental Quality to do something about the big pit. The city of Carencro took up the issue after it annexed the land. “Is it legal? I’ll tell you what, everyone at DEQ has been contacted about this pit,” says Rochon. “We can’t get anyone to exercise any sort of inspection or anything to make a determination whether or not they’re in the aquifer or not.”

But the DEQ says it has inspected the pit and this one — all pits, for that matter, as long as they’re strictly excavation projects — is beyond its jurisdiction. “We did go out there many years ago and, you know it’s private property, and it’s somebody who is doing work on their land, and we did not have an issue with what they were doing,” says DEQ Communications Director Rodney Mallet. “It could be a city thing or a parish thing. But it’s on his property and that’s not something we’re going to regulate. It’s not really creating any kind of environmental issue. If it’s a safety issue that would be the city or the parish.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, too, says it has no issue with the pits as long as they’re not excavated in designated wetlands, leaving Gardes wondering who’s on first: “The point of the mayor of Carencro putting his head in the sand or the point of Lafayette saying that’s not our problem, that’s Carencro’s problem, there’s a point to where, alright everybody, it’s time to get together and take a look at this before somebody gets hurt and do something about it.”

These rolling hills in north Lafayette Parish are sparsely populated, but residential development is gaining a foothold. Councilman Castille is developing a cul-de-sac neighborhood called The Bluffs adjacent to the big pit off Moss Street. The councilman says he had the property surveyed and determined the pit is not a structural threat to his strip of land or future homes there. “It’s not going to affect the neighborhood,” he says. “The only thing is it’s an eyesore and it’s not really safe being the way it’s set up.”

To complicate matters, a second excavation project southwest of the big pit — on a 30-acre tract of land owned by Jason Mouton, Roy Mouton’s son and an employee of Mouton Sand & Gravel — is now the subject of a dispute with LCG’s planning and zoning department. The younger Mouton declined comment, but his attorney, Jeff Moss — a former Lafayette Parish government attorney and the first LCG attorney — was eager to defend the project and to accuse LCG of essentially bullying people with arbitrary interpretations of what he calls a “vague and ambiguous” ordinance. “They don’t have an ordinance that has definitions on what’s a pond, what’s a lake, what’s a pit,” Moss argues. “They have this stupid ‘man-made, relatively deep hole.’ A relatively deep hole for a 2 year old is 6 feet.”

Moss says the excavation — while being done by the company of the property owner’s father, which sells the dirt — is plainly and simply a pond. “Jason has built about $40,000 in improvements back there; he’s got a barn, he’s got fencing for his horses, he’s built fencing for an arena,” Moss says. “He plans on building his house back there, and certainly he’s having a lake excavated. And it’s not hard logically [for others] to say, ‘Oh, well that’s really a dirt operation.’”

Moss likened the younger Mouton’s trouble with PZC, which has put him on notice about the excavation, to the Old Testament phrase about the sins of the father: The elder Mouton asked for and received permission to build a pond. Now it’s a pit. Surely that must be what’s happening all over again. “He’s doing what he would do with any other contractor, with his daddy’s company, and that is, they’re excavating it,” Moss says. “They get the dirt. He gets the lake.”

“Everything starts off as something small,” Gardes counters. “[Roy Mouton] started off digging this pond — no one’s really going to notice anything... Then by 2001 or ’02 the thing is getting deep. That’s about the time we called the DEQ. And we just kept running into one roadblock after another... And nothing ever happens, which is one of those things, we always wondered, does this guy just know how to skirt the law?”

Moss isn’t buying it: “If I’m entitled to have a pond on my property — how do I get it dug? You’re telling me I can’t move the dirt off my property? There’s not one law that says that.” Moss insists Jason Mouton’s project is nothing similar to Roy Mouton’s, and he’s ready to fight LCG in court — as he has done successfully in the past.

So what’s the solution? How to balance the need for dirt — and the messy fact that pits are a byproduct — with the safety of those living nearby? “I have no idea,” Brasseaux admits. “A short-term solution would be to put a fence around it to protect the kids and stuff. They’re starting to build out there now, and there’s going to be kids that explore.”

Castille has met with the Moutons and other contractors to find a solution, which Moss insists is to simply rewrite the ordinance and clearly define pits and ponds. “We need the dirt to keep developing Lafayette,” Castille says. “Shutting them down just doesn’t make any sense at all.” The councilman-developer had a wooden fence constructed along the boundary between The Bluffs and the pit running the entire length of the property. But, assuming the lots sell, homes go up and families move in, a wooden fence won’t keep an 11-year-old from doing what kids do: exploring. And that has neighbors on edge. “At this point in time,” says Gardes, “if I don’t say anything about it and some child runs back there on a four-wheeler ... falls in there and dies I’m going to say, ‘You know, for years I knew all about that and I guess I should’ve said something.’ Well, you know, I’m saying something.”