Fair Grounds Spends Pile of Money to Keep Things Clean

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FILE - Workers move horses into trailers at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS – If you’re a lazy dog walker who doesn’t clean up after your pet, you may get a lecture from your next door neighbor.

If you’re the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots and you don’t clean up after your animals, you get a $2.8 million civil penalty from the federal government and you have to spend another $5.6 million on construction and operational changes to remedy the problem.

Churchill Downs Inc., owner of the historic Gentilly Racetrack, said this week’s settlement with the feds over Clean Water Act violations was eight years in the making.

“In 2012, the EPA told us that we needed to change our procedures so we have been working to that end since then,” said Doug Shipley, property president of the Fair Grounds. “We’ve done a lot to make them comfortable enough to settle, including committing to invest over $5.5 million into the track.”

The problem? During peak racing season, the Fair Grounds houses up to 1800 horses in its 50 barns. Those horses produce a lot of manure and urine each day. If there is heavy rainfall, excess pollution may be washed into the city’s drainage systems and, eventually, Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

The solution to this messy problem is a lot more complicated than the plastic grocery bags favored by dog walkers. 

The mission, simply put, is to get the manure and urine off the ground and removed from the site as quickly as possible. To get it done more efficiently, Shipley’s team had to establish and enforce new protocols and invest in new systems and equipment.

“Our team meets with every one of those horsemen and goes over best practices and standards,” said Shipley. “And on top of that, we implemented our environmental enforcement code department, which inspects all 50 barns making sure the horsemen comply with the codes we’ve developed. And it’s been a challenge because old habits die really hard in this business but they’ve done a great job.”

Shipley said that horses train only a few hours each day and are resting in their stalls most of the time – so that’s where most of the “action” requiring cleanup occurs. 

“Ninety percent of the time their dumpings happen on fresh straw and shavings which are changed every morning,” said Shipley. “Then the shavings are placed directly into a covered dumpster that’s emptied daily by a licensed company that holds a special permit at a specialized site to discard the contents.”

Cleaning protocols include washing horses in certain locations only, using brooms instead of hoses to clean in front of barns, cleaning out drainage lines with hydro jets and more. New equipment includes a specialized sweeper truck, “24/7” surveillance cameras, new dumpsters and an on-site weather station to monitor rainfall.

It’s all necessary to keep the racetrack and its surrounding area clean and up to current standards.

“This consent decree will stop the flow of untreated process wastewater into the local sewer system, which leads to local waters used for fishing and ultimately Lake Pontchartrain, in a way that recognizes the challenges presented by the racetrack’s urban location,” said the Justice Department’s Jonathan Brightbill in a statement.

“Horses have been racing on this site since 1838 when nothing was around,” said Shipley. “The community grew around us and put in its own storm water systems. So now we are faced with operating one of the oldest tracks in the U.S. in a highly dense urban location that experiences heavy rainfall at times and poor natural drainage around us. These conditions are compounded by the high sea level and antiquated New Orleans wastewater and stormwater management system. All that said, we continue to remain committed to protecting the environment and the health and welfare of the people of our city.”

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