Road Project Advances Despite Flood Worries

     HOUSTON (CN) – A federal judge refused to stop a road-construction project in Texas, but he ordered further study into possible ramifications for two downstream dams.
     The Grand Parkway, or State Highway 99, is a proposed 170-mile loop tollway around Houston. The highway was divided into sections for construction purposes.
     Activists claim that state and federal agencies approved the project without adequately considering how a 15-mile segment will affect the Addicks and Barker Dams, two West Houston dams ranked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as “two of the six extremely high-risk dams in the nation.”
     Though the Sierra Club first sued over the flooding concerns several years ago, a federal judge sided with the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in 2009, and the 5th Circuit later affirmed that decision.
     Concerns rose again, however, when the Corps placed the Addicks and Barker Dams under its “most dangerous dam classification” in November 2009 and then backtracked and said the dams are not in imminent danger of failing.
     Because the dams protect the nation’s fourth largest city, however, the Corps noted that the consequences of a dam failure are unacceptable.
     The Corps issued an Interim Reservoir Control Action Plan for the Addicks Reservoir in July 2010. This plan lowered the maximum water level for the reservoir to 33 percent of what it was designed to store, and raised the amount of water that could be released downstream to control the reservoir’s levels.
     Other improvements the Corps made to the dam’s safety include: filling voids in its foundation, installing plugs to facilitate future investigations, and constructing a filter to capture and hold soil and prevent holes in the dam.
     The Sierra Club filed suit again in August 2011. This time it sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Texas Department of Transportation and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
     The complaint focuses on how failure of the Addicks Dam would cause catastrophic flooding along Buffalo Bayou, which flows through downtown Houston. Floods would also implicate multibillion-dollar property damage and threaten the lives of 4 million Houstonians living downstream, according to the nonprofit.
     U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison found last week that the Sierra Club has standing to sue, crediting its declaration that it has 190 members living downstream of the Addicks Dam.
     He also rejected claims that the previous lawsuit dooms the case at hand, noting that the Corps published its interim plan for the Addicks Reservoir in March 2011, two months after dismissal of the first lawsuit.
     And after the Corps released its plan, “many additional facts about the dams and the classifications were brought to the public’s attention,” Ellison wrote.
     “Flooding and drainage issues were central to the prior litigation, the court approved defendants’ analysis and findings on these issues,” he added. “However, Sierra Club argues that the flooding claims in Sierra Club I were different; they did not involve Addicks and instead related to the floodplain maps that defendants used.”
     The court concluded that the final environmental impact statement for the project was adopted arbitrarily since it did not address how future development around the road would affect the Addicks Dam.
     On remand, the Corps must “consider cumulative impacts with respect to the Addicks Dam,” the 45-page decision states.
     Ellison declined, however, to grant the Sierra Club an injunction to stop the project.
     “If construction is halted through an injunction, state defendants assert that costs of approximately $119,000 per day will be accrued,” he wrote.
     “An injunction will also delay the completion of Segment E and the start of other segments of the Grand Parkway, cause a loss of toll revenue that could be earned on the completed projects, and may force state defendants to terminate construction contracts if the injunction continues for an extended amount of time, causing a loss as high as $21 million,” Ellison added.

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