Feds Must Pay $3B for|Eco Project, Judge Says

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The Army Corps must pay the full cost to restore wetlands damaged by a shipping channel, just as Congress intended, a federal judge ruled.
     The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has delayed a project to fix wetlands lost because of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet channel, arguing Louisiana should pay more than a third of the nearly $3 billion the restoration is estimated to cost, according to court records.
     But Eastern Louisiana District Judge Lance Africk ruled Thursday that Congress earmarked the restoration money back in 2007. In a 21-page ruling, the judge criticized the agency for stalling on desperately-needed ecosystem restoration and for trying to bill the state for a problem that it created.
     “The only reasonable interpretation of Congress’ intent is that the MRGO closure and ecosystem restoration project shall be implemented at full federal expense,” Africk wrote.
     Ten years ago, hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated New Orleans, in great part due to the flawed MRGO channel and others like it, whose designs allowed for excessive erosion and helped elevate storm surge.
     MRGO was planned by the Army Corps of Engineers and authorized by Congress in the 1940s and 50s in response to Congress’ desire to make the Port of New Orleans more accessible for maritime and military use.
     Completed in 1968, the MRGO measured 36-38 feet deep and 500-600 feet wide and ran through “virgin coastal wetlands.”
     The Corps recognized in the 1980s a need to fortify the channel’s walls against erosion, but declined to do so because Louisiana was unable to split the bill. In the mid-1990s, Congress ruled the agency had to protect against erosion, but by then it was already too late.
     “The Corps’ delay in armoring the MRGO allowed wave wash from ships’ wakes to erode the channel considerably” and eventually the channel’s walls reached a width of 1,970 feet, “or well over three times its authorized width,” Thursday’s ruling states.
     The increased width allowed for more forceful frontal waves on levees, and “‘MRGO’s expansion thus allowed Hurricane Katrina to generate a peak storm surge capable of breaching’ levees,” according court records.
     The Army Corps created a plan in 2008 for closing boat access to the MRGO, but a plan for ecosystem restoration was another four years in the making, the ruling states.
     Under the agency’s ecosystem restoration plan that was submitted in 2012, the total cost of ecosystem restoration was estimated to be $2.9 billion. The Corps said it would pay for 65 percent, asking Louisiana to pay the remaining $975 million, court records show.
     Louisiana objected to sharing the cost and the Corps said that, unless a non-federal sponsor was willing to help, ecosystem restoration work would not begin. Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the agency last October.
     Africk wrote that, when the money for the restoration was earmarked by Congress in 2007, then-President George W. Bush described “‘hurricane protection for greater New Orleans’ as one of ‘the nation’s critical water resource needs.'” He ruled that the Army Corps must pay for the entire project.
     “Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, vital ecosystem restoration remains incomplete. Rather than abide by the clear intent of Congress and begin the immediate implementation of a plan to restore that which the Corps helped destroy, defendants arbitrarily and capriciously misconstrued their clear mandate to restore an ecosystem ravaged by MRGO,” he wrote. “Congress’s unambiguously expressed intent does not require the State of Louisiana to pay for the shortcomings of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
     The judge said that needed coastal restoration has been stalled by “legal wrangling.”
     “Due to its arbitrary and capricious action, the Corps has compounded the problems that MRGO caused,” the judge wrote.

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