6 tons of litter later, Burden borrow pit becomes lab for environmental research

(04/17/24) BATON ROUGE, La. — A little more than two years ago, elected officials, community leaders and volunteer groups descended on a borrow pit and wetlands area at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden for a press conference calling attention to the problem of litter.

The scene then was much different than it is now. For decades, bottles, cans, ice chests, tires, deflated basketballs, shoes and all sorts of other debris had drifted through Baton Rouge via nearby Ward Creek and settled in the low-lying wetlands and borrow pit — a term referring to dirt that was “borrowed” years ago to build the interstate highway that runs through the Burden property.

With help from the Osprey Initiative, the Louisiana Stormwater Coalition and a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Trash Free Waters program, all that litter — 6 tons that covered 10 acres — has since been hauled away.

Burden leaders along with several organizations and governmental agencies are now transforming the site into a lab for research on stormwater management, water quality and litter prevention. They hope the work will yield educational opportunities for the public and reveal strategies that can help municipalities better manage environmental issues.

“It’s an innovative way to take something that wasn’t beneficial to the environment and turn it into a good use and repurpose it,” said Jeff Kuehny, director of the Botanic Gardens.

Several projects have grown out of the litter removal effort.

Osprey has been analyzing the makeup of the “legacy litter” that was removed. Data is being kept on the type and age of materials as well as brands to trace litter as closely to its source as possible.

“The types of litter have changed over the 30-some years that it’s been coming down Ward Creek and into the wetlands and borrow pit,” Kuehny said. “It used to be more bottles and aluminum cans. Then we started looking at beverage and water bottles becoming more popular. Now, not only is it water bottles, but we’re looking at a lot of Styrofoam from the fast-food industry.”

About half of the litter in the borrow pit was plastic, much of which was water bottles.

“That’s really important,” Kuehny said. “One of the things we’re trying to get people to do is use refillable water containers and get businesses and public areas to have filling stations for them.”

Burden is collaborating with the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative and Southern University to study surface litter in two areas of Baton Rouge.

“We’re working with the underserved communities of Old South Baton Rouge and Scotlandville,” Kuehny said. “We’re engaging these communities to help determine what they think the issues with litter and blight are in their neighborhoods. We’re collecting litter data to see what types of litter are in those neighborhoods so they can determine what the solutions should be.”

This program will offer mini grants to local businesses to install water bottle filling stations and pursue other litter reduction tactics.

Litter-catching devices such as corrals and booms are one potential solution. Different types of equipment are being evaluated at Burden, and additional litter catchment demonstration sites have been set up at Bayou Fountain through partnerships with the Louisiana Stormwater Coalition and BREC. The third and largest demonstration site will be at Capitol Lake through support from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

In another related project funded by a $1.5 million EPA grant, Burden faculty along with those in the LSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station are studying biofilters that can capture nutrients and improve water quality, especially in urban settings.

“We’re looking at the stormwater that comes in the wetlands and borrow pit here, and because it’s impaired — which means some of the chemicals in it are above what EPA considers acceptable limits — we’re looking at how we can remediate the stormwater once it gets into waterbodies like this,” Kuehny said.

As Kuehny and his colleagues dive into these research projects aimed at improving the environment, it’s important to remember that much can be learned from nature itself, he said.

“Ward Creek is a primary drainage channel for all East Baton Rouge Parish watersheds,” he said. “It was channelized back in the 1950s, but on the Burden property, the old meanders of what Ward Creek used to be like have been preserved.”

He is looking forward to developing the wetlands and borrow pit into a space for both research and education.

“People can walk our trail system and look at what we’re doing with the borrow pit as far as litter and stormwater nutrient mediation,” he said. “They also can look at what was naturally here before and, in becoming more resilient with stormwater, see some things we can learn from the ways that nature dealt with stormwater and apply that to the systems we have today.”

Aerial photos of a wetlands area.

Aerial views show a borrow pit and wetlands area at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden. At left is a photo taken in 2022. A 2024 photo taken after a massive litter removal effort is at right. Photos provided by Brian Bordeaux, left, and Mark Benfield, right

Piles of litter.

Litter filled a borrow pit and wetlands area at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden prior to a cleanup effort that began in 2022. LSU AgCenter file photo

People picking up litter.

Volunteers collect litter data in Scotlandville. Photo provided by Jeff Kuehny

Water body with litter in it.

A litter corral has been installed at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden. Photo provided by Jeff Kuehny

Aerial photo of a boom trapping litter in a bayou.

A boom traps litter in Bayou Fountain. Photo provided by Jeff Kuehny

4/17/2024 1:29:12 PM
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