Toll Road May Flood Houston, Group Says

     HOUSTON (CN) – The Sierra Club says the Army Corps of Engineers ignored the “potential devastation of downtown Houston” when it approved construction of a section of a toll road that will increase the failure risk for two West Houston dams the Corps ranks as “two of the six extremely high-risk dams in the nation.”
     The Grand Parkway aka State Highway 99 is a proposed 170-mile loop tollway around Houston. The highway was divided into sections for construction purposes; two of its 11 sections are complete.
     The Sierra Club sued to stop construction of “Segment E” a proposed 15-mile section of the Grand Parkway.
     The Sierra Club says the Corps of Engineers violated federal law by not disclosing its July 2010 internal memo, which determined that the Addicks Dam and Barker Dam “currently face significant risks of ‘catastrophic failure.'”
     The Sierra Club says it did not learn this until March this year, after making a Freedom of Information Act request for the Corps of Engineers’ evaluation of Segment E.
     “According to the Corps, these dangers are ‘Urgent and Compelling,” which means they warrant the highest ranking in the Dam Safety Action Classification (‘DSAC’) done by the Corps,” the Sierra Club says in its federal complaint.
     The Addicks and Barker Dams are two of six nationwide that the Corps of Engineers ranked as “Urgent and Compelling.”
     “These two dams protect key areas of Harris County from the risks of catastrophic flooding from Buffalo Bayou, including Houston’s Central Business District, the Memorial Drive area, the Memorial Villages, Tanglewood, River Oaks and portions of the Interstate 10 energy corridor,” the complaint states.
     “The failure of Addicks or Barker Dam would cause extensive flooding along
     Buffalo Bayou from the Beltway 8 area eastward through the Memorial Villages to the Central Business District, threatening billions of dollars in flood damages and loss of life for many Houstonians.”
     Congress authorized building the earthen dams after severe flooding along Buffalo Bayou in 1929 and 1935.
     Construction of Segment E will increase the danger of the dams failing as development in the Addicks and Barker Watersheds generates “additional runoff that will flow into the reservoirs after severe storms,” the Sierra Club says.
     In its July 2010 internal memo the Corps of Engineers issued “its interim response concerning the ‘Urgent and Compelling’ dangers at Addicks and Barker Dams, which includes changing the normal operations for these dams so as to release more water from these reservoirs down Buffalo Bayou,” the complaint states.
     The Corps of Engineers has known about the risks of the dams flooding since September 2009, the Sierra Club says, but “has yet to develop a more permanent solution to these critical problems.”
     The Corps of Engineers recently violated Section 404 of the Clean Water Act by issuing a permit that is the final precondition under federal law for allowing construction of Segment E, the Sierra Club says.
     “The issuance of this 404 permit for Segment E is especially troubling, because the Corps’ Statement of Findings somehow concludes that there will be no impact on Addicks Dam and Reservoir from Segment E or its induced development, despite the acknowledgement that certain members of the Corps recognize that construction of Segment E will negatively impact Addicks Dam by necessarily increasing the volume of stormwater entering the Reservoir and thus increasing the risk of ‘catastrophic failure,'” the Sierra Club says in its 47-page complaint.
     The Corps of Engineers did participate in a required environmental review of Segment E with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) but did not disclose to those agencies the results of its prior draft hydraulic study, which found that urban development had caused increased flood levels in the reservoirs, the Sierra Club says.
     The Corps of Engineers did not publish its interim plan to deal with the dams until after the feds and state had issued their “final re-evaluation of their Final Environmental Impact Statement (‘FEIS’) and revised Record of Decision (‘ROD’)” for Segment E in June 2009, according to the complaint.
     The Sierra Club says that under these circumstances the National Environmental Policy Act requires the feds and state to assess the “additional, significant dangers now known to be created by Segment E.”
     The Sierra Club seeks an injunction to vacate the Corps’ permit for Segment E, and to require a proper Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement by the FHWA and TxDOT.
     In addition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and two of its engineers, the Sierra Club sued John McHugh, in his official capacity as secretary of the Army; the United States Federal Highway Administration and two of its administrators; the United States Department of Transportation and its Secretary Raymond LaHood in his official capacity; and the Texas Transportation Commission and its Secretary Deirdre Delisi in her official capacity.
     The Sierra Club is represented by Houston attorney James Blackburn.

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