More Trouble for Yazoo Pumps


Sierra Club Director Louie Miller

Last week, environmental groups pounced on an August lawsuit filed by the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners over the federal rejection of a plan to drain the southern portion of the Mississippi Delta.

Last August, the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' push for the Yazoo Pumps Project—a massive $220 million flood-control endeavor by Congress initially introduced in 1941 to control flooding during times of hard rains along the Mississippi River.

Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water, said last year that the agency reached its decision under the dictates of the U.S. Clean Water Act, which safeguards public drinking water, shellfish beds and fishing areas, and found the project too environmentally destructive to allow.

The EPA decision had actually been an unexpected blow to Yazoo pump advocates. The agency had not unilaterally vetoed a project in more than 10 years prior to its Yazoo decision.

The Mississippi Levee Commission sued the EPA for declaratory and injunctive relief in August in U.S. District Court, claiming the EPA veto was illegal because Congress approved the project before the Clean Water Act gave veto power to the agency in 1977. Attorneys with anti-regulation legal non-profit Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the board, say the Clean Water Act actually prohibits the EPA from vetoing any project approved by Congress prior to December 27, 1977.

"Federal law is clear," PLF attorney Damien Schiff said in a statement. "The EPA cannot pull the plug on this vitally important pumping station, because Congress OK'd it after a formal environmental briefing. ... Congress authorized the Yazoo Backwater Project as early as 1941 and Congress appropriated money for the pumping station in 1982 with the benefit of an environmental impact statement from the Army Corps of Engineers. Congress approved this project with all the required information before it. EPA has only one duty in this matter: To butt out."

The suit also argues that the pump project is the final piece of a bigger tri-state plan already underway to control flooding in the Delta, and that without the pumps, decades of anti-flood construction in the Delta will create pools of unwanted water during high rains—rather like building a drain toward a lake but then forgetting to connect the lake.

"Over the next several decades, the Corps designed and constructed a number of interrelated structures for flood damage protection in the Delta (including the 1969 construction of the Steele Bayou structure, the 1975 construction of the Little Sunflower River Structure, and the 1978, Yazoo Backwater Levee System). The project—a pumping station to evacuate water retained behind the closed Steele Bayou structure—is the last integrated element of this system. Completion and operation of the pumping station will alleviate interior flooding," the board claims in its suit.

Environmental organizations, including the Mississippi Sierra Club and the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, dismissed the analogy as ridiculous, however, and said on Thursday that the plan is a massive boondoggle that will pointlessly destroy thousands of acres of valuable wetland.

Mississippi Wildlife Federation Executive Director Cathy Shropshire said her agency fully supported the EPA's decision, while Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said the state needed to be vigilant in protecting and restoring natural habitat.

"This project would have cost federal taxpayers more than $220 million, and would have jeopardized one of the region's most significant success stories," Schweiger said in a statement. "After nearly disappearing from the region, the now-federally threatened Louisiana black bear has returned to the Yazoo Backwater area, and bear cubs can be seen again in Mississippi."

James Tripp, general counsel for Environmental Defense Fund, said the U.S. Corps of Engineers needed to allocate its time to better projects: "It is time that the Corps turn its attention away from economically wasteful and environmentally destructive, out-of-date drainage projects like the Yazoo Pumps project and concentrate on the restoration of major ecosystems such as coastal Louisiana restoration. The EPA's action (to block the project) contributes to this much-needed transformation with the Corp," Tripp said, and added that his organization would defend the EPA's right to veto the project "with all of our might."

Mississippi Sierra Club head Louie Miller added his voice to the group of interveners, referencing the EPA's surprise veto of the project as reason enough that it wasn't worth construction. Miller said the EPA had been the lap dog of anti-conservation President George W. Bush for eight years prior to its 2008 decision and that for the largely anti-environmental EPA to reject the project must have "truly made it a horror."

"That tells you how god-awful bad this thing must have really been for even them to run from it," Miller said.

U.S. District Court in Greenville has yet to assign a date for the case.

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I was wondering where this one had gone to. Thanks guys!



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