Puddles of sewage spilled out behind a Louisiana shopping center where many restaurants do business, with foul odors wafting into the air and finger pointing over who should be held responsible.
The shopping center is a hamlet of restaurants, including Saigon Hong Kong Seafood Market, Paradise Smoothie, Saigon Noodles, Golden Bakery, East Dragon Chinese Restaurant and more.
Behind the colorful signs advertising businesses, sewage leaked onto the grass and into the neighboring property as bottles of bleach seeped in as well. Plumbers tried to jet sewer lines and clear what they suspected was a blockage possibly from a grease buildup.
Behind the businesses, boxes of trash, a broken-down toilet and a number of small add-on buildings were among the problems Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis pointed out.
“They’re cooking food back there,” Collins-Lewis said, gesturing to one of the small shacks she said contained buckets full of grease when she arrived Monday morning. “That’s not sanitary.”
The Louisiana Department of Health confirmed it received a complaint and sent an inspector to the site. City-parish plumbers and inspectors also visited the site.
The sewage leak was a repeat frustration for James Cristina, the property manager of an apartment complex adjacent to the shopping center. Sewage spilled into the parking lot of the apartment complex, a routine occurrence every few months because the sewerage problems have never been adequately addressed, he said.
“I’m spending $100 worth of bleach every few months,” Cristina said of his repeated efforts to clean the complex’s parking lot. “You should smell this when it’s 90 degrees out.”
Cristina said he has had tenants move out of his apartments because of the sewage leaks from next door. He described the complex as a “garden community” where people like to spend time outdoors, saying the stench chases people away.
Collins-Lewis blamed the problems on the owner of the shopping center’s buildings, but said it’s difficult to address because most of the tenants in the center rent their spaces and are trying to be good stewards.
“We just follow the rules, we go do grease traps and stuff like that,” said one cashier, who declined to give her name. “But what else can we do? I don’t know, the building doesn’t belong to us.”
Collins-Lewis said she will check the permits and licenses of all the businesses, and said she suspects they did not have permits to build add-ons behind their main shops.
“It needs to stop,” she said.
Those business owners have received citations from the state Department of Health after sewage spilled behind their buildings.
The Department of Health notified business owners that there were critical violations of their health permits. Each business has been required to provide evidence that the sewer line they use has been cleared and that their grease traps are working.
Fats, oils and grease can build up in sewer lines and cause blockages and pipes to break if there is not proper grease trap cleaning. Grease traps are meant to prevent fats, oils and grease from moving into sewer lines, but grease traps also require routine maintenance because they can become ineffective if they are overloaded.
“All of the permitted facilities were required to provide documentation that said they had fully cleaned and pumped out any grease trap that serviced their location,” said Carolyn Bombet, chief of field operations for health department’s sanitation division. “We let the property owner know that it’s unacceptable that it’s affecting all these people in the area.”
It’s still unclear what caused the sewage leak. But city-parish service requests show that sewer overflows and backups at the location are frequent. The city-parish has responded to at least seven backups, overflows and other sewer complaints within the past two years, not counting the most recent incident.
Two of those were sewage backups inside a commercial facility. Bombet said the Department of Health requests that businesses voluntarily close if sewage spills inside a building, and that the department will also sign off on an imminent closure form that prevents a business from serving food until the problem is fixed.
The landlord for the property insisted that her grease traps were cleaned just two days before the sewage puddled behind the shopping center. She said all the tenants in the shopping center share her privately owned sewer line, but that each restaurant is required to maintain its own grease trap.
She said her tenants should clean out their grease traps at least once a month. Bombet said the Department of Health requires businesses to clean their grease traps as often as necessary, which depends on how much grease they generate.
Yong said the sewer line, and not the grease traps, was the problem. But she did not explain what caused the problems in the sewer line.
City-parish Environmental Services Director Richard Speer said that the publicly owned and maintained portions of the sewer line in the area had no backups or issues. Speer said the city-parish could not confirm whether the privately owned sewer line was broken, and he said the landlord is required to hire a plumber to determine the problem in the private sewer line.
Plumbers can snake video cameras into sewer lines to determine whether they have broken and what caused the break.
But Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who spent hours at the site of the sewage spill earlier this week, said the frequency at which sewer problems keep happening at that location shows there is a problem that has not been fixed. She suspects that grease keeps getting into the sewer line.
And Collins-Lewis said the landlord has not shown interest in finding a long-term solution, given that the sewage problems have repeatedly occurred at that location over a number of years.
“All we know is that it keeps backing up,” Collins-Lewis said.
Collins-Lewis is also waiting on a determination from city-parish officials on whether small buildings behind the shopping center had been properly permitted.
To prevent your grease trap from getting clogged with food solids and leading to health code violations, consider installing The Drain Strainer so you won’t have grease trap pumping issues.