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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Louisiana Blasts Engineers on Wetlands Work

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is wrongly trying to charge Louisiana $1 billion for wetlands restoration work the federal government already promised to pay for, a federal lawsuit claims.

The state of Louisiana, through its Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, says the corps' failure to begin the wetland restoration project leaves New Orleans and the coastal region vulnerable to catastrophic storm surge damage should a hurricane bear down on the region from the Gulf of Mexico.

In a lawsuit filed in New Orleans, the state is asking for "clarification" of what Congress intended when it directed the Corps of Engineers to restore the wetlands using federal funds.

The coastal protection authority points that the MRGO -- a 76-mile channel that provided a shortened route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans -- has been an entirely federally funded project from the start, and that local participation was has been kept to a minimum, entailing maintenance close to wharves and structures along the channel.

The MRGO served as an outlet to Lake Borgne, approximately 15 miles east of New Orleans, for 40 years before it was closed in 2009.

Ecosystem restoration would help rebuild natural storm buffers that have been lost because of saltwater intrusion into the wetlands that was enabled because of massive erosion due to the corps' poor design and maintenance of the channel.

During Katrina, levee systems including those along the MRGO, catastrophically failed, causing massive flooding.

At Congress's directive, and following a contentious legal battle with homeowners who blamed the federal government's poor maintenance of the channel for their lost homes, the Corps of Engineers closed the MRGO in 2009. However, it never began the coastal restoration project it was also directed to undertake, ostensibly because Louisiana hasn't chipped in more than $1 billion toward the $3 billion project.

The corps' own restoration report recommends protection of 57,000 acres of habitat, 71 miles of shoreline and protection for nearly 6 miles of oyster reefs and estimates the project will cost $2.9 billion.

Jerome Zeringue, Board Chair of the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority said in statement that the state isn't seeking monetary damages with its lawsuit, just clarification.

"Unless we can get this resolved nothing will get done," Zeringue said. "We are clear as to what Congress intended and what Congress meant in directing the corps to do all of the work at full federal expense. We would prefer to settle this issue without litigation and we've been trying to work with the corps for years in order to resolve this issue, but we are at an impasse and feel we need the court to rule on Congress' intent."

Wetlands along Louisiana's coast are lost at a rate equivalent to the size of a football field every hour. The land loss is the result of saltwater intrusion and erosion, largely caused from channels, such as the MRGO, that have been carved through the wetlands for transportation and shipping and oil exploration.

The ecosystem restoration project the corps has not yet begun would help rebuild a natural storm buffer between coastal Louisiana, including New Orleans, and the Gulf of Mexico.

"This isn't the only impasse with the corps that we feel is delaying and deferring progress on some of the projects that can provide protection and restoration along our coast," Zeringue said. "We need to get past the point where the corps uses foot-dragging bureaucratic technicalities when it comes to restoring and preserving Louisiana's working coast. We believe that on this and other issues Congress has been very clear in its intent to help Louisiana, and the corps needs to fulfill the wishes of Congress, not stand in the way."

The United States Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

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