[StBernard] State gets behind lawsuit to shut MR-GO

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sat Sep 9 11:01:14 EDT 2006

State gets behind lawsuit to shut MR-GO
It seeks remedy for waterway blamed for worsening flood
Saturday, September 09, 2006
By Matthew Brown
West Bank bureau

The state of Louisiana has joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to shut down
the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, raising the profile of the battle over
the shipping channel and giving added legal muscle to those who blame the
waterway for amplifying Hurricane Katrina's deadly tidal surge.

The action marks the state's first courthouse clash with the federal
government since Katrina over hurricane protection measures and Army Corps
of Engineers projects that failed or have been blamed for intensifying
flooding. Hundreds died in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish after
Katrina's floodwaters surged up the final reach of the Gulf Outlet, or
MR-GO, pouring over and through sections of the levee along the shipping
channel and breaching floodwalls along the Industrial Canal.

"It acts as a funnel into the Industrial Canal, and helped cause the
flooding of St. Bernard, the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East," Louisiana
Attorney General Charles Foti said Friday. "This (lawsuit) is trying to make
sure this doesn't happen again."

The suit, originally filed by residents of New Orleans and St. Bernard and
joined by the St. Bernard Parish Council, does not seek damages. Instead, it
asks for the court to appoint an independent "panel of distinguished
experts" to come up with a remedy for "the continuing dangerous conditions
of the MR-GO."

That panel also would devise a plan to restore the tens of thousands of
acres of wetlands lost since the channel's construction in the 1960s as a
76-mile shipping shortcut between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

A spokesman for the corps, John Hall, said the agency does not comment on
pending litigation.

Effect on study unclear

How the state and St. Bernard Parish government's intervention will affect a
congressionally mandated MR-GO closure study that began in June remains
unknown. That "deauthorization" report will outline engineering options for
closing the channel and detail economic ramifications of keeping it open at
varying depths. Some observers fear the intervention could undermine the
study, but Hall said in a statement Friday it "will continue until
completion, without delay." It is due to be delivered to Congress in

Officials in St. Bernard had warned for decades that the little-used,
40-foot-deep waterway put their community at risk by eroding the wetlands
that served as a natural buffer against storms. Those dangers were
acknowledged by the corps as far back as 1988, according to the lawsuit.

Foti alleged that the corps failed to heed numerous warnings about the
channel from state and federal agencies. Those include a warning from the
U.S. Department of the Interior in 1958, the year construction of the
channel commenced, that the project would damage surrounding marshlands.

But shipping industry representatives said the deauthorization process --
not a courtroom -- is the best venue for deciding the future of the channel.
Companies that use the channel have pushed to keep it open as a venue for
future economic development.

"The corps' (deauthorization) meetings are the first step in the right
direction," said Sean Duffy, president of the Steamship Association of
Louisiana. "There's got to be some compromise in figuring out how to
maintain the economy and protect the environment."

Referring to two Port of New Orleans tenants forced to move after their deep
draft access through the MR-GO was eliminated, Duffy added, "Lets' not throw
away another thousand jobs to the state of Alabama."

One of the original plaintiffs in the suit, St. Bernard Parish Councilman
Mark Madary, said the intent of the suit was not to foul up the
deauthorization process but to circumvent it altogether. Two prior corps
studies on the issue were shelved before the results were made public.
Madary said taking legal action against the agency ensures that will not
happen a third time.

"To them it's a study, it's another project," he said. "This isn't to have
them walk away, it's to have them re-create what they've undone."

Foti said the lawsuit provides "extra security" to ensure public safety is
protected and the channel is not restored to its prior condition.

The federal government's response to the lawsuit is due Nov. 20, said
Cynthia Magnuson of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing
the corps in the case. No hearings have been scheduled. The case is presided
over by Eastern District Judge Stanwood R. Duval.

No need from NASA

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin denied a claim made by Duffy last week that a new
NASA contract with the company's Michoud plant was dependent on keeping the
MR-GO open to deep-draft vessels. The contract for the construction of
components in the space agency's manned spaceflight program could bring 200
new jobs to the area.

Duffy had said transporting those components out of the plant would be done
via barges needing at least a 20-foot depth on the MR-GO. An alternative
route, the Intracoastal Canal, is only 14 feet deep.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Marion LaNasa denied the claim. "How the heck
would he know that?" LaNasa asked.

"The components that we would manufacture at the Michoud assembly facility
are considerably smaller than the external tanks we build there now," he
said, referring to fuel tanks used in the space shuttle program that are
produced at Michoud. Those tanks can be transported via the MR-GO or the

"There is no current or identified future requirement that demands the use
of the MR-GO," LaNasa said.

. . . . . . .

Matthew Brown can be reached at mbrown at timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3784.

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