Greens Blocked Plan That May Have Saved New Orleans

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project designed to prevent a Category 5-hurricane-storm surge from filling Lake Pontchartrain and flooding New Orleans was blocked by environmentalists intent on preserving “natural water flow” in 1977.

Save Our Wetlands (SOWL) used a lawsuit against the Corps based on the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to halt the Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project.

NEPA, enacted in 1970, requires federal agencies to identify, through public hearings and environmental impact statements, all real and potentially harmful environmental effects of government projects. It also authorizes private groups, such as SOWL, to file lawsuits to enforce these provisions.

SOWL’s argument against the Corps’ Lake Ponchartrain project claimed the Corps’ environmental impact statement was inadequate. U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz, Jr., agreed, issuing an injunction prohibiting the project. “Testimony reveals serious questions as to the adequacy of cost-benefit analysis of the plan,” he wrote in his opinion. “It is the opinion of the court that plaintiffs herein have demonstrated that they and in fact all persons in this area, will be irreparably harmed if the barrier project based on the August 1974 FEIS [Federal Environmental Impact Study] is allowed to continue.” Schwartz also ruled that associated flood prevention plans in Chalmette and New Orleans East must be stopped.

Protecting Wetlands

U.S. Attorney Gerald Gallinghouse, who represented the Corps, argued the project should be exempt from environmental standards because it was “necessary to protect the citizens of New Orleans from a hurricane.”

The project would have built flood gates to block storm surges from moving into Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico, and also would have built additional levees in flood-prone areas. It had been drafted in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1964, and authorized as part of the Flood Control Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, five years before NEPA came into effect.

Johannes Westerink, a civil engineering professor at Notre Dame who specializes in hurricane storm surge prediction for the Corps, the Navy and a number of states, including Louisiana, believes the 1977 project would have stopped the mean water level in Lake Pontchartrain from rising. “If you had the gates there [from the canceled project], you would stop that water from being pushed into Lake Pontchartrain,” he said.

On its website, where it tells the story of its fight to stop the project, SOWL says, “under the guise of hurricane protection, [the plan] would destroy Lake Pontchartrain, drain the wetlands of New Orleans East and promote development in newly drained areas.” SOWL also said it would “create hundreds of millions of dollars in dredging contracts for the cronies of the Orleans levee board.”

Former Rep. Bob Livingston (R.-La.) blames environmentalist groups for consistently thwarting disaster prevention plans in the New Orleans area. “Environmentalists have attacked the Corps at every turn, and have systematically tried to undermine their mission,” he said. “They have instigated lawsuits consistently over the years, and have attacked the Corps’ role in the media as pork barrel politics. We are now seeing that their idea of ‘pork’ was really the survival and livelihood of millions of people.”

In 1986, nine years after they had been blocked in court, the Corps formally dropped the Lake Ponchartrain Hurricane Protection Project as part of a compromise with environmentalists that allowed the Corps to raise the levees around St. Bernard, Orleans, East Jefferson and St. Charles parishes. But the levee-raising program was not designed to protect the area against anything stronger than a Category 3 storm.

Birds and Bears

The House Task Force on Improving National Environmental Policy said NEPA lawsuits have prevented protection plans in New Orleans at least twice. In addition to the 1977 SOWL suit, the task force cited a 1996 suit brought against the Corps by the Sierra Club to stop a plan to raise and fortify Mississippi River levees. This suit argued that the Corps had not considered “the impact on bottomland hardwood forest wetlands” and the effect on Louisiana black bears and bird breeding.

SOWL’s website says it “fought bitterly against the United States Army Corps of Engineers.”

“Since 1974,” it says, “SOWL has consistently put pressure and exposed the Corps, New Orleans Division, for blatant and reckless issuance of permits that are ecologically disastrous.”