Talking Trash in New Iberia

by Mary Tutwiler

Despite being statewide leaders in curbside recycling and yard waste pickup programs, parish officials continue to consider a multi-million dollar project that combines recyclables with garbage.

You'd think Iberia Parish officials would be tired of talking trash by now. Parish government has been arguing over how to deal with garbage, recycling and yard waste since 1990, and lately, the subject has come up weekly at parish council meetings. While New Iberia and Iberia Parish have been recognized since 1993 by the Department of Environmental Quality as award-winning statewide leaders in curbside recycling and yard waste pickup programs, parish officials continue to look for a single process that would allow residents to return to combining their recyclables and garbage in one can. Some parish officials seem to think separating recyclables is too much work and that it would be preferable to have the entire waste stream handled at a high-tech plant.

The company offering to make their high-tech dreams come true since 1990 is Bedminster Bioconversion Corporation. To date, parish government has spent about $600,000 on engineering fees with nothing to show for it. Bedminster's patented bioconversion process mixes garbage and sewage sludge in a giant tube, called a digester, which breaks down the waste into compost after three days of heat and tumbling. Glass, plastic and metals that remain after the process are culled from the compost, and the compost would then be available for gardens and farm land.

Parish engineer Wayne LaBiche is brother-in-law to former Bedminister vendor Billy Toups. For a decade the brothers-in-law advocated Bedminister to the parish; Toups was national marketing director when he left the company in 1999 and says he is no longer associated with Bedminister but that he is still an avid supporter of the technology. LaBiche continues to have a project contract for Bedminister with Iberia Parish Government.

The parish government's time has lately been occupied by looking for a site for the plant, and that's assuming it can get the plant permitted by DEQ. After taking heat for considering a location next to the parish jail over the past three years, the latest site under consideration is immediately adjacent to the city's new sewer treatment plant. New Iberia is in the final stages of completing a $20 million sewer plant located at the city limits between Center Street (Hwy. 14) and La. 675. Center Street has been designated by the city as the "gateway" into town from U.S. Hwy. 90.

There were no objections when the city located the sewer plant in the gateway or when parish government sited a $2.3 million multi-sport recreational complex dubbed PepperPlex in the shadow of the sewer plant. City literature touts the Center Street corridor as the fastest growing area for economic development, designed to lure hotels, shopping malls and fast food chains to town.

Now Iberia Parish Government wants to locate the bioconversion facility in the immediate vicinity. Six members of the 14-member Iberia Parish Council have gone on record in support of Bedminister, as has LaBiche. Most of the New Iberia City Council, including the mayor, are opposed. A month ago, state Rep. Troy Hebert joined the fray, firing a letter off to DEQ secretary Mike McDaniel, stating that he would "not hesitate to use whatever powers granted to me to block this facility [Bedminister] from being located" at the current proposed site. Hebert, whose district does not include New Iberia, but who is rumored to be running for Iberia Parish Senate District 22 in 2007, was instrumental in finding state funding for the PepperPlex facility. The parish is considering paying $12,000 up-front for a two-year option to purchase the rights to buy the 25-acre tract for $20,000 an acre. Last week, however, one member of the family who owns land the parish is eyeing said she was opposed to selling the land to the parish for the composting facility.

If the site can be purchased and permitted by DEQ, the Bedminister facility itself is proposed to cost $7 million.

The lack of a comprehensive master plan is the likely culprit for locating these industrial facilities on questionable sites. Meanwhile, the trash talk flies while genuine issues in New Iberia, such as wetlands restoration, racial tension, and even the mundane work of balancing the current parish budget get short shrift.