Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Nov 25 20:27:52 EST 2007

The Army Corps of Engineers needs clay to rebuild levees, making some
property owners leery of soil tests on their St. Bernard land
Sunday, November 25, 2007
By Sheila Grissett
East Jefferson bureau
Louis Pomes calls himself St. Bernard Parish's last cattleman, an endangered
species that could be driven to extinction by the federal government's hunt
for more than 100 million cubic yards of clay to build bigger, better
regional levees and floodwalls.

"I'm the only one left down here, and if I was an eagle, the government
would build fences around me and protect me," said Pomes, who runs cattle on
pasture that the Army Corps of Engineers wants to test for clay deposits.
"Instead, they want to wipe me out."

Corps officials are trying to identify 145 million cubic yards of
high-quality clay, which has soared in price and demand since Katrina, to
remediate much of the region's storm-wrecked hurricane protection system.

To meet the need, the corps is having to piece together enough individual
parcels to provide the materials for more than $7 billion in improvements to
the hurricane protection system over the next several years. At least half
of the 300 construction contracts will be clay-based levee and floodwall

As a result, the corps has approved dozens of new borrow sites in St.
Bernard and other southeast Louisiana parishes since the storm, most of them
with the blessings of property owners who want to sell.

But because not enough property owners are offering to sell, corps scouts
are identifying other sites that might harbor the coveted material, then
asking levee district officials for the permits that will allow corps
representatives to access the properties to perform soil tests.

Corps Hurricane Protection Office executive Rick Kendrick said the agency is
looking for alternatives that will provide the agency with more willing

And members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, who
manage levee affairs in St. Bernard, East Jefferson and most of New Orleans,
have promised Pomes and other angry St. Bernard residents that the board
will help find viable alternatives.

"I know the corps is struggling to find proper levee-building material, and
we on this board have a responsibility for flood control," said commissioner
Tom Jackson, an engineer. "But it's incumbent on us to turn over every rock
to find ways to do it without destroying St. Bernard Parish."

Soil samples wanted

Katrina claimed Pomes' previous stock. Many drowned, some died from drinking
contaminated water, and others, Pomes had to shoot out of trees to end their

"But we've come back, and we've cleared the land and rebuilt the fences and
barns, by ourselves. I owe a half-million dollars, but I'm back in
business," Pomes told levee authority members during a meeting this month.
"And now, the government wants to dig it all up for dirt. It isn't right.

"When a property owner wants to sell his land for dirt, I don't have nothing
to say about that, but I can't run my cattle in a borrow pit," he said. "I
want to be left alone."

Most of Pomes' 400 head of black Angus and white charlet cattle roam the
pastoral 400-acre Creedmore Plantation in Toca. He owns some acres, but he
leases most of it from the Armbruster family, a few of whom still live on
the land after six generations.

Half of the acreage is wetlands, which by federal policy, the corps shies
away from excavating for fill. It is the other half, pasture land ringed by
some grand old trees, that has piqued the corps' interest.

"It's terrible. My whole life was there," said Valerie Armbruster Bobear,
whose father bought the onetime sugar plantation in the early 1920s. "My
father struggled to keep the place. He raised cattle and made hay. This
breaks the heart."

Bobear, her husband, John Bobear, and Pomes have asked the levee authority
to intercede on their behalf and stop the government from testing or taking
six large parcels of St. Bernard land they own.

Environmental documents indicate that the potential test sites in St.
Bernard and other coastal parishes are likely to provide only a fraction of
the needed clay, but unless corps agents are allowed to go onto the
properties to do soil tests, it is impossible to determine the quality and
quantities available.

"If the levee authority gives the corps authority to go in and take soil
borings, it opens the way for the government to commandeer our land," said
Louis Barrett, adding that he and wife Linda learned that the corps was
interested in their family land only after the agency wrote levee officials
requesting a permit.

Her family has owned the Magnolia Plantation in Toca for generations and
still maintains homes on the large tract.

"These six pieces of land are prime property, probably the highest elevation
in the parish," Barrett said. "I challenge the corps to go back to the
drawing board and come up with viable alternatives that provide protection
without destroying communities, without cannibalizing the very land the
levees are to protect."

Levee commissioners delayed a decision until next month and have asked corps
representatives to attend their Dec. 18 meeting to talk about the issue.

Price negotiations

The corps' Kendrick said the new "sources sought" dirt procurement option
will give the agency flexibility to negotiate more favorable deals with
individual landowners, including the potential for sales by cubic yard.

Although it could result in the corps paying a higher price for dirt than
traditional per-acre sales, Kendrick said it will be a competitive process
that could help fill the void.

Until now, individuals could sell their dirt directly to the corps only if
they were willing to accept an up-front, per-acre sales price -- not the
cubic yard prices that the corps pays if it buys from contractors or dirt

"Some property owners . . . now realize that while they might be getting
paid $100,000, they were watching $500,000 worth of fill get dug out of the
ground," said engineer Bob Turner, executive director of the regional levee
commission. "And when it was all over, all they got back was a big hole in
the ground."

Kendrick is optimistic.

"People have just not come forward to sell, but I think we have a solution
now," he said. "I think through the use of all three methods, we can provide
all the dirt we need at competitive prices."

Alternative source

Corps estimates show that the needed 145 million cubic yards of clay is
equivalent to 10 square miles of land -- some 5,000 to 6,000 acres -- dug to
a depth of 20 feet.

Levee commissioner Stradford Goins, also an engineer, said the corps must
look for design alternatives for levee and floodwall projects that don't
require that kind of excavation.

"For example, there is open cell technology out there that should be
considered," said Goins, who once worked for the corps in New Orleans.

"It's a proven design that's quick to build; it would require a smaller
footprint and wouldn't need all this clay," he said.

Turner also wants the corps to consider getting its clay from low-grade
wetlands outside the levee system. He said some St. Bernard landowners have
offered to donate land in those areas for borrow.

"We lose more land to coastal erosion every month than would be lost by
digging a few borrow pits outside the levees," he said.

"We have to provide flood protection, but that doesn't mean placing the
responsibility on the backs of a few families who, in many ways, are the
heart and soul of St. Bernard. They just want to help rebuild the parish and
live in peace."

. . . . . . .

Sheila Grissett may be reached at sgrissett at timespicayune.com or (504)

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