Groups join EPA in suit over Yazoo pumps

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 20, 2009

From staff and AP reports

Environmental groups have intervened in a lawsuit filed by a Mississippi levee board over the Environmental Protection Agency’s veto of a $220 million flood control project that dates back decades.

The Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners sued the EPA in August in U.S. District Court in Greenville.

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The levee board, made up of representatives from several Mississippi counties, wants to move forward with the Yazoo Backwater Project, a proposal to build a pump station to drain wetlands, farmland and forests north of Vicksburg when the Mississippi River is high.

Congress authorized the Mississippi Delta project in 1941, but didn’t fund completion. The EPA vetoed the Yazoo pump aspect of the project in 2008, saying it would destroy wetlands, water quality and habitat for threatened species. The lawsuit challenges the agency’s authority to stop the project.

On Thursday, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund joined in the lawsuit on the side of the EPA.

“The Mississippi Wildlife Federation has been concerned about wetlands loss since 1954,” Cathy Shropshire, executive director of Mississippi Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

“Continued drainage of these areas over the last 60 years has made it imperative that we protect the remaining wetlands in the Mississippi Delta. Such protection benefits not only Mississippi, but the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. We strongly support the EPA and its veto of the Yazoo pumps project,” she said.

No trial date has been set in the case.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, starting after the Flood of 1927, has engineered measures to limit flooding upstream on the Mississippi River, a consequence of which is impounding water on Delta forest and farmland in flood years. The Yazoo River Basin contains about 900,000 acres and 1,000 residential structures affected by the failure to complete the project as designed with pumps to remove the impounded water, said attorney Damien M. Schiff, with Pacific Legal Foundation, a legal watchdog organization that represents the levee board.

The pumps are the last integrated element in the large flood control system, Schiff said in a phone interview Tuesday.

“Despite the many social and environmental benefits that the Project will produce, EPA vetoed the project, contending that the project will be too environmentally harmful,” the levee board said in its lawsuit. “That is flat wrong: the project will produce significant environmental benefits, as well as flood protection.”

The lawsuit also claims EPA’s veto is illegal because the project was approved by Congress before the agency was given veto power under the Clean Water Act in 1977.

EPA officials have said in the past that the project doesn’t meet all the requirements to proceed under the Clean Water Act, regardless of when it was authorized.

Grounds for EPA’s veto fell under Section 404 (c) of the act, which deals with the discharge of dredge and fill material into U.S. waters deemed to have a negative impact on one or more various resources. It was the environmental regulatory agency’s 12th veto of a project under the section and the first in 18 years.