Levee board loses appeal for Yazoo pump project

Published 11:41 am Wednesday, March 30, 2011

JACKSON — A Mississippi levee board that wants to move forward with a $220 million flood control project has lost a bid in federal court to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2008 veto of the project.

The Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners sued the EPA in August 2009 in U.S. District Court in Greenville. Court records show U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock dismissed the lawsuit Monday.

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

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Congress authorized the Mississippi Delta project in 1941 but didn’t fully fund it. 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 challenged the EPA’s authority to stop the project.

The levee board’s chief engineer, Peter Nimrod, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the board might appeal Aycock’s ruling.

“They hurt the environment by not allowing us to build it,” Nimrod said of the EPA.

He said the proposed pump would lower a 100-year flood by 4 feet, and the project would remove about 60,000 acres from agricultural production so hardwood trees could be planted to increase wetlands.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation out there from the environmental community, the extremists,” Nimrod said.

The lawsuit claimed EPA’s veto of the Yazoo pump project was 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 the pump project doesn’t meet all the requirements to proceed under the Clean Water Act, regardless of the timing.

The EPA first expressed reservations about the environmental damage associated with the proposed pump project more than 25 years ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been against it for more than 50 years.

In her 39-page ruling dismissing the lawsuit, Aycock reviewed the project’s history and concluded that “the EPA was not barred from utilizing its … veto authority” for the project.

Several high-profile Mississippi politicians have supported the Yazoo pump project over the years, including current Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, a potential 2012 presidential candidate.

Before the EPA vetoed the pump project in 2008, a representative of Barbour told EPA officials at a public hearing in Vicksburg that most of the negative comments about the project had come from people who don’t live in Mississippi.

Louie Miller, state director for the Sierra Club, applauded the dismissal of the lawsuit.

“Today marks the final nail in the coffin of one of the most costly and environmentally destructive projects ever contrived,” Miller said in a news release. “This truly marks the end of an era in Mississippi politics.”

In November 2010, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund joined in the lawsuit, siding with the EPA.