Corps of Engineers releases St. Johns Bayou impact statement

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has posted its long-anticipated latest draft environmental impact statement on the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project.

The project would close a 1,500-foot gap in the Mississippi River levee system in Southeast Missouri along Scott, New Madrid and Mississippi counties and construct a 1,500-cubic-feet-per-second pumping station in the floodway and a 1,000-cubic-feet-per-second pumping station in the St. Johns Bayou Basin. The project also calls for modifications to 23 miles of ditches in the basin.

Proponents of the plan say closing the gap is key in flood control and will protect local farmers with land in the flood plain area. Others stand opposed and multiple environmentally focused organizations said in a combined news release last Friday that building up the levee would "sever the final connection" between the river and the flood plain in Missouri, which would be harmful to area fish and wildlife.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has been urging for the release of an updated environmental impact statement and went so far as to put a "hold" on the Environmental Protection Agency nominee over the project. He spoke on the Senate floor Thursday and said he placed the hold on the nomination March 18, three days after the corps, EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to release a statement by a previously agreed upon deadline of March 15.

"I frankly thought this would be a couple weeks, because a month earlier they said they could do this in two weeks," he said. " ... You can't just promise members of the Senate you're going to do something and then decide you're going to ignore it."

The four-month hold was lifted last week when the Senate confirmed nominee Gina McCarthy in a 59-40 vote, with Blunt voting no and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., voting for the confirmation.

The impact statement, posted on the corps' Memphis District website, outlines a "tentatively selected plan," said Danny Ward, project manager with the corps, and seeks public comment for possible changes or suggestions.

"We will address each comment we receive," he said. "We will make changes to the draft EIS [environmental impact study] if necessary and then we will release the final EIS and put it up for public comment as well."

The public comment period opens Friday and will remain open for 45 days. During that time, Ward said, the corps also will host two public meetings to gather more input. While official dates still are being worked out, he said one meeting would be in East Prairie, Mo., and the other in Cairo, Ill., sometime in late August.

The cost of the tentative plan is about $164.78 million, and the average annual cost is about $7.25 million, according to the environmental impact statement. The statement also predicted average annual benefits to be around $15.5 million, claiming a combined benefit to cost ratio of 2:1.

"The estimated cost is based on construction costs and associated mitigation to compensate for any environmental impacts," Ward said. "... It is greater than the cost estimated in a report from 2006, but that's primarily because construction is just generally more expensive now and inflation increases and things like that. Overall mitigation costs also increased."

Bruce Morrison, general counsel for Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, in a news release on Friday called the project "absurd" and a "misuse of the public's money."

"There are many environmental concerns, but our focus is on the government waste aspect at the moment," he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

He added the tab for the project and its maintenance would be paid by taxpayers and the building of any type of levee in the area would be a waste.

"It's not a levee that would be protecting existing infrastructure, which would be different, but it's all farmland there," Morrison said.

He also said Great Rivers would be submitting a comment to the corps with its suggestions.

Ward said the draft "strived to seek balance between actual economic benefits versus environmental impacts," but the corps recognizes that some controversy remains.

"This is why the public input period is so integral," he said. "If there is a way to further minimize impact or people believe there is anything else we should further consider they can let us know."

Those who wish to submit comments may email them to Ward at daniel.d.ward@usace.army.mil or to National Environmental Policy Act coordinator Joshua Koontz at joshua.m.koontz@usace.army.mil. Comments also may be mailed to Ward at Project Management Branch, 167 N. Main St., Room B-202, Memphis, TN 38103-1894.

srinehart@semissourian.com

388-3641

Pertinent address:

New Madrid, Mo.

East Prairie, Mo.

Cairo, Ill.

Map of pertinent addresses

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