Senators renew demands for answers on St. Johns Bayou

Sunday, February 17, 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)

Calling ongoing delays in the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project "outrageous," U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Wednesday that he is "giving serious consideration" to blocking the appointment of a new Environmental Protection Agency administrator until progress is made.

Blunt and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., planned to meet with the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday to try to push for the publication of an Environmental Impact Statement to help determine if the levee project should proceed.

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 wetland destruction.

Since 2008, the EPA, Fish and Wildlife Service and the corps have been developing a revised impact statement and lawmakers have repeatedly tried to pressure regulatory agencies to complete a draft for public review. A "draft agency advance copy" was circulated internally among the agencies at the beginning of the year, according to service officials.

"They've been holding the Environmental Impact Study so that nobody gets to see it," Blunt said. "Every indication is that's because, once again, the Environmental Impact Study says that, no, we should go ahead and complete this project."

Amy Salveter, Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor, provided preliminary comments to the corps in a Jan. 18 letter that stated, among other criticisms, that the corps' plan would result in "unacceptable losses of nationally significant fish, wildlife, and aquatic resources" but the losses could not be lessened in such a large project. She strongly advocated a modified plan that would solely address the protection needs of communities and infrastructure in the St. Johns Bayou. Separating the bayou project from the New Madrid floodway would avoid "another exhaustive, repetitive cycle of rebuttal between the federal agencies and most efficiently and effectively address the most pressing, long-standing flood control issues in the project area," the letter said.

Environmental groups have said building a levee would cut off the region from its last natural connection to the Mississippi, vital to maintain a healthy fishery, floodplain and wetlands. The crux of the impasse in producing an environmental study largely surrounds inconsistencies in how much of the floodway area should be classified as wetlands and afforded protections.

"The USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] says there's 520 acres of agricultural wetlands in that large floodway," Blunt said. "At one point, EPA said there was 118,000 acres of wetland that needed to be protected. Now they're saying there's 5,000 acres."

Rich Hood, associate regional administrator of the EPA, said the classification problem was because of parties using inconsistent definitions.

"There are different types of wetlands, and some of the different numbers that have been used by various parties compare different types of wetlands with others," Hood said by email Friday.

McCaskill canceled Wednesday's meeting because of a scheduling conflict. A new meeting has not been scheduled, said representatives for McCaskill and Blunt.

"Sen. McCaskill's No. 1 goal remains ending the limbo that this project has created for Missourians for decades -- and that can't happen until all sides sit down and communicate," said Drew Pusateri, press secretary and spokesman for McCaskill, by email Friday.

Hood said he was told a meeting would happen in a couple weeks.

"EPA would certainly participate when such a meeting is scheduled," Hood said.

Salveter said she heard there may be a meeting scheduled this week.

David LaValle, a member of the board of the St. Johns Levee and Drainage District, said he applauded Blunt's interest and his consideration of using a Senate hold on appointing the EPA post. As far as he can tell, he said, there's been no effort to resolve the problem and no outreach.

"It's too bad that that has to be deployed, but it seems like it's the only way to get anybody's attention from the administration on this project." LaValle said. "If that doesn't work, I hope that there'd be some consideration for also holding the Secretary of the Interior's nomination up."

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.

Phone and email messages left Friday afternoon with Danny Ward, project manager for the corps' Memphis district, were not returned.


Pertinent address:

New Madrid, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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