McCaskill seeks action on Mo. levee project

Monday, December 31, 2012

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is joining two Republican colleagues in calling for federal agencies to move ahead with plans to close a 1,500-foot gap in a southeast Missouri levee, a project long delayed due to environmental concerns.

McCaskill sent a letter Dec. 14 to the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, urging a restart of the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project.

"My constituents deserve to have a final answer regarding this project," McCaskill wrote to outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Fish and Wildlife Service director Daniel Ashe. "The ongoing uncertainty and delays in reaching a final resolution to improving flood control along the St. Johns Bayou and in the New Madrid Floodway are unacceptable."

The levee holds back the Mississippi River from agricultural land in the Missouri Bootheel region. The project would also include drainage improvements since rainwater often floods towns like Charleston, East Prairie and Sikeston.

The $100 million project was given the go-ahead in 2006, but halted a year later over concerns raised by environmental groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. It has been on hold since after a federal judge found flaw with the Army Corps of Engineers' environmental impact statement.

Corps officials have been working on a revised impact statement, but disputes involving the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service have stalled the project.

McCaskill's letter asks the agencies to reach a resolution in 30 days and present a new environmental impact statement in 60 days.

In September, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican whose district includes the levee, complained that the Obama administration "inexplicably" took action to stall the project.

Environmental groups say the project could damage fish and wildlife habitat because river water could not reach the floodplain. The groups have also said the project would waste millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

"It's a whole bunch of money and it's really to benefit a small group of farmers that farm in the floodway," Brad Walker, rivers and sustainability director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said Monday.

In 2011, the Mississippi River reached record crest levels during spring flooding in the Bootheel region. Ironically, McCaskill's letter comes a time when the river is now at the other end of the spectrum, approaching low-water records.

The levee is part of the same system where the corps used explosives at the height of 2011 flooding to blow holes in it, helping reduce the height of the Mississippi enough to prevent flooding in nearby Cairo, Ill. The sections damaged by explosives are being rebuilt.

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