Project to close gap in levee stalled amid bureaucracy

Friday, January 25, 2013
Logan Cagle casts into St. John’s Bayou on Thursday in New Madrid, Mo. Cagle, who grew up fishing in the waters of the bayou, said “there is real good bass and catfish here.” (Laura Simon)

Despite pressure by lawmakers and local stakeholders to resume reviewing plans to close a gap in the Mississippi River levee, federal agencies are not ready to move forward. They cite the need for further coordination and study.

The St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project -- to close the 1,500-foot gap in the levee and protect homes and farmland from periodic flooding -- dates back to the 1950s. A $100 million undertaking by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was given the green light in 2006, but it was brought to a halt in 2007 after a lawsuit was won by the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation in U.S. District Court to prevent destruction of area wetlands.

In 2008, the Department of Justice opted not to appeal the ruling. Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been developing a revised Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] to help determine if the project should proceed.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, complained in a Sept. 14 letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the army for civil works, about the project being stopped. After an in-person meeting, the legislators received a written response from Darcy on Sept. 27 stating her goal was to tour the area in October and have a draft of the environmental impact statement released for public comment "in the near future."

Last month, after no EIS was available after the tour, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked that involved parties come to a resolution within 30 days and release an EIS within 60 days for public review. In her letter, McCaskill called the lack of action toward protecting residents of the floodway "unacceptable" and asked for reasons for delays.

"The EPA failed to provide any answers or timetable for progress on this issue. I've already called the agency and told them how unacceptable this is. I'm angry, and I'm not done. Missourians know we need action, and I'm not stopping until we see some," McCaskill said via email Wednesday.

Blunt also expressed frustration.

"The response from the corps simply failed to answer our questions. It's inexcusable that this critical project has been plagued by endless delays and bureaucratic indecision for more than three decades. I will continue to press the Obama administration for answers to move this project forward as soon as possible," he said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

David LaValle, a member of the board of the St. Johns Levee and Drainage District, said the federal agencies involved are aligned with environmental groups so closely they are not acting impartially. He pointed to the presence of Michael J. Bean, legal counsel to the assistant secretary of the U. S. Department of the Interior for fish and wildlife and parks, at the October tour of the levee area. Bean led the wildlife program of the Environmental Defense Fund -- plaintiffs in the case that stopped the levee project -- from 1977 until he was appointed to the Department of the Interior in 2009.

Lavalle said environmental groups are using flooding that occurred in May 2011 as leverage in their efforts to preserve farmlands as wetlands, which would block building a levee. Environmental groups have said the levee would be devastating to the ecosystem.

"The National Wildlife Federation believes the St. John's/New Madrid project should not move forward because it will cut off the Mississippi River's last natural connection to its floodplain in Missouri, a connection that is absolutely vital for a healthy, sustainable fishery in this section of the Mississippi River. The U.S. Department of the Interior has said that it simply is not possible to mitigate the project's damage to the region's fisheries, wetlands and floodplains," said George Sorvalis, water protection network coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, in an emailed statement.

Amy Salveter, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said her agency received a "draft agency advance copy" of an EIS for internal review and analysis around the beginning of the year. The three-volume document is 14 to 16 inches thick, she said, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has not had the opportunity to fully review it.

Salveter said the review aims to highlight all laws and policies relevant to the project and iron out conflicts so progress will not be impeded by legal objections. She said the target date for delivery of the review to the corps is mid-Februrary.

EPA Associate Regional Administrator Rich Hood said the EPA is working with the corps "to provide comments to improve the EIS."

The corps is ultimately responsible for releasing the EIS to the public, according to Danny Ward, project manager for the corps' Memphis district. He could not estimate a release date but said coordination among agencies continues.

Ward said the project remains relevant because the corps is still looking for solutions to address flooding problems in the area that have negative economic and social effects on floodplain residents. He said the final decision on whether the project will proceed will be made by Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, Mississippi Valley Division commander.

Lavalle said stakeholders want details of the project made public for conversation.

"We've asked both our senators again recently to urge the administration, the White House, and get them to direct the agencies to allow this process to go forward, to stop delaying the legal process and allow the revised EIS to go public for comment," Lavalle said. "There's nothing wrong with a dialogue, there's nothing wrong with allowing people to comment."

"What are they afraid of?" Lavalle asked.


Pertinent address:

New Madrid, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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