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Activists, shippers fight for attention of Mississippi River Commission

Saturday, April 13, 2013 - 7:00am

Commercial and environmental interests both said Friday the Army Corps of Engineers needs to make improvements along the Mississippi River.

The Corps' Mississippi River Commission held a public meeting in Port Allen as part of its river inspection tour.

Hearing from local users and stewards of the river is, "absolutely essential," according to the commission's president, Major General John Peabody. "There's no way that the Corps or this commission can do its job without listening and engaging the public, getting their concerns."

Maj. Gen. Peabody and Col. Edward Fleming gave presentations about the Corps' response to the flood on 2011, drought of 2012, and hurricanes in Southeast Louisiana.

Afterward, members of the public were invited to testify before the commission about how the river impacts their lives.

Those from the shipping community spoke about the great need for upgrades to the river's infrastructure.

"The day that they opened the Port Allen-Morgan City alternate route, it was obsolete then," said David Deloach of Deloach Marine Services. "Because they put a 1,200-foot lock on one end of it, with a 700-foot lock right in the middle of the system."

Members of the commission told the crowd that many of its locks up and down the Mississippi need repairs or replacement, but the federal government has decided that transporting goods is not a priority.

Maj. Gen. Peabody said the budget of the Mississippi River & Tributaries program has declined from $400 million to $250 million in recent years.

A handful of environmentalists told the commissioners not to forget the consequences of any action on the ecosystem. Maj. Gen. Peabody said the Corps is playing catch-up to protect the environment.

"In the early stages of this country, we didn't really pay attention to that," he said. "And it really wasn't until the environmental laws started getting passed in the late 60s, early 70s, that that became a concern that we were required to incorporate.

"And the Corps has done an awful lot in that time to try to the environment. In fact, we spend about a third of our budget today goes toward environmental restoration or environmental mitigation in one sense or another."

Another focal point of the meeting was the Morganza to the Gulf levee project. It is a long-discussed system that would reduce the risk of damage from storm surge along nearly 100 miles of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes.

The project was first considered in 1992, and has an estimated price tag of $10 billion.

"We've gone through a number of studies, and there's been some cost estimate changes and other policy changes, and engineering and technical requirement changes that really came out of Katrina, that have driven changes along the way," Maj. Gen. Peabody said. "It's taken a long period of time because of all these changes that have been driven while we've been doing the study."

While the system has been designed to protect the nearby wetlands, Cynthia Sarthou of the Gulf Restoration Network believes the gates along its path will do just the opposite.

"Actually, as the EPA notes, the state will be required, the parish will really be required to rely on forced pumping, which will in fact then seriously degrade the wetlands behind it," she told the commissioners.

She also doubted both the funding and timing of the project.

"We believe it's necessary," she stated, "but even if all RESTORE (Act) dollars were put to the construction of this levee, and if all state dollars are put to the construction of this levee, you still are gonna have at least a ten year, if not more, delay in protection. And that's not, that's presuming all the money you need is gonna come from these sources, which I don't think (it) is.

"As (Maj.) Gen. Peabody can tell you, there's a 40-year backlog in Corps of Engineers projects. As we heard from the navigation interests, there's a lot of navigation project maintenance and upgrades that need to be done." 

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