River Birch owners turn a troublesome property into a landfill empire

River Birch landfill
River Birch landfill (Photo by David Grunfeld / The Times-Picayune)
Richard Rainey, | The Times-Picayune By Richard Rainey, | The Times-Picayune The Times-Picayune
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on September 24, 2012 at 10:00 PM, updated March 09, 2013 at 12:31 PM

Twenty years ago, the site of southeast Louisiana's most successful private landfill was nothing more than a dried-out wedge of cypress swamp sandwiched between two trash dumps in a remote part of Jefferson Parish's West Bank. By 2000, that tract had been transformed into the River Birch landfill -- a juggernaut of the local waste-disposal industry, receiving thousands of tons of garbage a day and, according to a court filing, worth $250 million.

Now, the landfill's owners -- developers Fred Heebe and his stepfather, Jim Ward -- are the targets of a sprawling federal grand jury probe into their effort to monopolize the local dumping business. The investigation aims to track Heebe and Ward's influence, from Capitol Hill to Baton Rouge and into nearly every city and parish government in the region.

It will probably fall to a jury to decide whether either man has committed a crime. But what is already in the public domain -- through River Birch's history, court records and interviews -- reveals both Heebe and Ward as expert navigators of backroom politics and the public square, skills enhanced by the top-shelf consultants and lobbyists they deployed. The question is whether the hardball tactics that made Heebe and Ward the kings of the garbage scene will also be their undoing.

The ability to manipulate the levers of power is especially important in the highly regulated world of landfills, which are reliant on government in almost every way imaginable. State and local officials decide whether a landfill gets the permits it needs to open, and they regulate it after that. Then municipalities and parishes usually become a landfill's primary customers.

The process of getting a landfill approved is so laden with obstacles that few make it to the finish line. The resulting scarcity of dumps means customers have few choices, making a landfill permit akin to a license to print money.

But Ward and Heebe have never been content to simply enjoy the fruits of their permit: Much of their energy has been spent on making the disposal business difficult for competitors.

They have harassed rival landfills as far away as Catahoula Parish. And through the years, they have not only publicly disparaged competing dumps, they've privately worked to turn grass-roots opposition to their rivals into full-on firestorms, sometimes without those movements' leaders knowing they were involved.

"When there's a fight and River Birch is in it, the only people who know 100 percent what River Birch is doing are Fred Heebe and Jim Ward," said Roy Walters, a veteran of the landfill business who once worked for River Birch. "They don't trust anyone."

Heebe and Ward declined, through a River Birch lawyer, to be interviewed for this story, but evidence shows their tactics were in use even before their landfill was up and running.

Seeds are sown

River Birch is a remarkably lucrative byproduct of the success Ward and Heebe achieved in the West Bank real estate market. The pair spent decades building apartment complexes and town homes with bucolic names like Shadowlake and Riverview.

Landfill series explained: video Times-Picayune city editor Gordon Russell and reporter Richard Rainey talk about their six-part series on Fred Heebe and Jim Ward and how they built their landfill empire.

But it was hard to figure out what to do with a triangular parcel they owned in Waggaman. Railroad tracks separated it from neighborhoods closer to the Mississippi River, and it was sandwiched between Jefferson Parish's public landfill, known as the Kelvin tract, to the southeast, and the Greater New Orleans Landfill to the west.

Building another landfill seemed the only plausible option.

"There's nothing else we can do with the property," Heebe said in 1994. "We're surrounded by two landfills and a sewage sludge pit."

So Ward incorporated River Birch and appointed his stepson Heebe, a Gretna lawyer with political aspirations, its vice president. Ward had married Heebe's mother, Willie Dee, two months after she divorced Heebe's father, U.S. District Judge Frederick Heebe, in October 1973.

The junior Heebe had developed into a player in New Orleans and Jefferson political circles. He would run for Jefferson Parish district attorney in 1996, and eventually marry state Rep. Jennifer Sneed, who would go on to serve on the Jefferson Parish Council. He was a fixture among political heavyweights' dinner parties and gave generously to Republican candidates.

Ward, by contrast, garnered a reputation as a shrewd businessman and tough competitor in the real estate market. He battled often with homeowners associations and civic groups, often winning court victories allowing him to continue building apartment buildings and tract housing. When he personally donated to candidates, it was usually in small increments and mostly to Democrats.

Their combined skill sets likely served them well as they worked to get River Birch off the ground.

As he formed the new company's board, Ward transferred the Waggaman property to River Birch from one of his other companies, Manor Heights Co. He and Heebe then set about laying the groundwork for a top-notch landfill operation.

River Birch had an advantage entering the disposal business when it did. The federal Environmental Protection Agency had recently established strict new guidelines for landfill management, known as Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The new rules would hamper many existing operations.

Heebe and Ward had Subtitle D in mind as they set about solving the various bureaucratic puzzles that stood between them and their goal. They proposed building a landfill from scratch, one with all the proper soil linings, the proper methane collection systems and the proper clay covers to close filled sections of the dump.

Their first real test came in 1994, when the Jefferson Parish Council bent to the protests of Waggaman residents tired of dumps being built in their town. To counter the strife, Heebe packed the council chamber in Gretna that December with Ward's employees, effectively drowning out dissent by taking up all the seats.

"We've gotten organized and we've been late in doing that," Heebe said at the time. "They've been beating us to death with numbers and we're responding in kind."

The battles begin

Nonetheless, the council canceled River Birch's request for a permit that day. But Ward and Heebe renewed their efforts. And on a parallel track, they trained their sights on a company they viewed as their biggest local rival.

The Greater New Orleans Landfill, a troubled dump that had been leaking pollutants since the 1960s, had just been allowed to reopen as a way of cleaning it up. The goal was to pile and pack in enough garbage that the dump could be properly sealed and closed. That let GNOL operate outside the new restrictions of Subtitle D, which in turn allowed its operators, Joseph Segreto and Joseph Marcello, to offer cheaper dumping rates than any other landfill in southeastern Louisiana.

So Heebe and Ward sounded the environmental alarm, warning of all the possible ills that GNOL could spawn.

"The thing unfolds like a battle plan," Segreto said. "They kept unrelenting pressure, political pressure, to get us closed."

Segreto and Marcello, the son of reputed mob boss Carlos Marcello, had once tried to buy River Birch. They met Ward at the Pelican Tomato Co., the Marcellos' produce-supply company, in November 1993 with an offer. Ward refused and later claimed the pair had threatened him. He eventually retreated from that accusation, but also began secretly recording any conversations he had about River Birch -- a habit that would later shed more light on the company's political tactics.

chart-riverbirch-092512.jpg Click to enlarge.

In 1994, River Birch launched a four-day mailing campaign that compared GNOL unfavorably to a new landfill in Baton Rouge that was operating under the enhanced federal standards. Around that same time, an eight-minute video was sent to about 1,200 households in the nearby Cypress Grove and Live Oaks subdivisions. Again, the subject was the substandard management of GNOL.

Meanwhile, new political obstacles sprouted in River Birch's path. John Alario, then speaker of the House, introduced a bill in 1995 banning any new landfills in Waggaman. Ward quickly turned to lobbyist Dan Robin, who promised to kill the bill in exchange for $50,000 and a 4 percent stake in River Birch, court records show. Ward agreed and Alario's bill disappeared in a matter of days, but Robin would have to sue Ward to get his share of the company.

Ward tried to use his secret recordings as evidence that Robin and Alario had shaken him down. By 2000, a 4 percent stake in River Birch was worth between $10 million and $12 million, according to an audit. But a 19th Judicial District judge didn't buy it. He ruled River Birch owed Robin his share, a ruling upheld on Ward's appeal.

Alario said recently he proposed the bill in response to requests from fed-up Waggaman constituents, not to shake down Ward. Robin didn't return messages left at his office.

Ward's recordings also shed light on some other unusual business practices. For instance, Ward was introduced to Robin through a general contractor, August Grimaldi. According to court documents, Grimaldi wanted to be River Birch's main contractor in exchange for his help in killing Alario's bill. Rather than hire him, Ward offered to pay him $500,000 a year for three years, just to go away.

"I don't like being in this position, because I didn't realize I was getting in it until I was there," Ward said in a recorded conversation with Robin. It's unclear from the court documents whether Ward ever paid Grimaldi, who didn't respond to a request for comment.

Despite the failure of Alario's bill, River Birch lost its first shot at a state landfill permit in 1996 during the waning hours of Gov. Edwin Edwards' administration, when Edwards' Department of Environmental Quality secretary, William Kucharski, denied its application.

River Birch appealed, reigniting the ire of Waggaman residents and attracting the attention of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

March toward monopoly

The clinic, which represented the residents, was fighting alongside DEQ against River Birch. But it would later find itself on the same side as River Birch's lawyers as they represented groups fighting to close landfills in eastern New Orleans.

But this time, the clinic's efforts were in vain. Kucharski's successor in Gov. Mike Foster's administration, Dale Givens, approved River Birch's solid-waste permit in May 1997.

"When they started up, they were in a much better place" than the older landfills in the area, Givens said.

As it had DEQ, River Birch would also win over the Jefferson Parish Council, obtaining its approval in August 1997. The new landfill's gates opened to the first delivery of garbage on July 1, 1999, the same day GNOL closed for good.

River Birch's expansion and strategic march toward monopoly had begun. In 2003, the Parish Council created a special landfill zone in Waggaman. The new designation basically blocked any landfills from being built anywhere else in the parish. But the new zone also included land owned by River Birch that wasn't yet being used for waste disposal.

The company would later expand its operations in 2004 to 497 acres, including 399 devoted to waste, and doubling the landfill's life span to 50 years, according to DEQ records.

Katrina would make its landfall 19 months later, signaling disaster for New Orleans -- but a world of opportunity for River Birch.