Engineers to appeal decision on flood control

Sunday, December 8, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Since the 1950s, Southeast Missouri farmers and other residents have sought to close a huge gap in the lower Mississippi River levee, a project aimed at ending periodic flooding.

Half a century later, the federal government is just a few steps away from starting construction on the $85 million project, but state officials are standing in the way.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources last month refused to give its approval, which is required by the federal Clean Water Act. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Friday it will appeal the state's decision early next week.

"The water crosses the road just about every year," said Mary Louise Williams, mayor of Pinhook, Mo., a town of 48 residents.

"If somebody got sick and had to go to the hospital, you don't get to a hospital unless you've got a tractor-trailer to get out," said Williams, 68, who has lived in Pinhook for 50 years. "To me, human lives are a whole lot more important than birds or fish or something like that."

Hers and other communities around East Prairie, Mo., are enthusiastic supporters of the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project, which will install two huge pumps and a steel gate to keep the Mississippi's waters in the river channel and out of thousands of acres of Southeast Missouri floodplain.

Supporters argue the government wouldn't tolerate children in wealthier communities riding tractor trailers across flooded fields to get to their school buses. If it happened in Chesterfield, Mo., or St. Louis or Washington, D.C., there would be an outcry, said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, the Republican congresswoman who represents the area.

"It's a civil rights issue, as far as I'm concerned," Emerson said. "The problem with the gap in the levee is that the flooding prevents any kind of business or company or plant to open in the whole community of East Prairie and Pinhook and anywhere else around there. We have high poverty, high unemployment and a large welfare population."

Value of farmland

The project's foes argue the real goal is not protecting poor communities, but increasing the value of fertile farmland in the area.

A spokesman for the environmental group American Rivers, Eric Eckl, called the project a "classic boondoggle" by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has repeatedly been accused of overstating economic benefits and understating environmental damage in support of huge construction projects.

Environmental groups say persistent floods in East Prairie come from severely inadequate stormwater drainage, and that Pinhook would benefit from the much less costly alternative of raising the road.

"Pinhook is their poster child, and we're supposedly hostile to the interests of African Americans because the project isn't about rich landowners," said Tim Searchinger, an attorney for the group Environmental Defense, which is helping Missouri groups make their case against the project. Nearly all of Pinhook's residents are black.

These interests argue that while local residents want the gap closed, the area is a national resource that helps keep the Mississippi healthy. The gap now operates like a spigot, allowing runoff to protect more populated areas during floods.

The "pristine wetlands" have been farmland for the past century, corps spokesman Bob Anderson said.

"We're actually talking about converted wetlands that are now farmland," Anderson said, adding the gate would open during breeding times for wildlife in the floodplain, and that planting usually happens after breeding season, anyway.

Anderson said Friday the corps plans to file an appeal Monday or Tuesday. If the Missouri Clean Water Commission overrules the state's action, construction could begin as early as April, Anderson said. Legal action would be the next step if either side disagrees with the commission.

State officials made an unusual call by denying certification under the Clean Water Act. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources said it could not approve the project because the two federal agencies involved disagree on whether the project will harm the environment, citing nearby Big Oak Tree State Park in particular.

The department's action is unusual because it normally turns down projects on their merits, not because of disputes among federal officials.

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