Friday, September 16, 2005

Did Traditional Environmental Groups Help Katrina Destroy Poor Black New Orleans?

According to recent published reports, the delay in building and improving levees could be due, in part, to the opposition of traditional environmental groups to dams, levees, and anything that would interfere with the natural flow of the Mississippi River. Levees hold the same status for traditional environmental groups as roads in forests — an artificial barrier to nature. The Army Corps of Engineers was planning to upgrade the levees after Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to prevent a future catastrophic failure. The environmental group's position possibly contributed to an unintended consequence, but the so-called pro flora and fauna position led to a very serious result for humans, flora and fauna. And there are many other areas where such consequences can occur. Lawsuits by environmental groups probably muddied the flood protection waters.

In Save Our Wetlands v. Rush, the Army Corps was directed by a federal judge in 1977 to examine the environmental impacts of a large levee project, which would have built a 25-mile-long barrier from the Mississippi border to the Mississippi River. After the Army Corps declined to reevaluate its plan, Save Our Wetlands filed suit and obtained a federal judge’s injunction. The Corps was ordered to conduct a new study of the impact of its project, but it never did so.

A 1996 suit (Mississippi River Basin Alliance, et al. v. H. Martin Lancaster) filed by environmental groups at the U.S. District Court in New Orleans claimed the Corps had not looked at “the impact on bottomland hardwood wetlands.” The lawsuit stated, “Bottomland hardwood forests must be protected and restored if the Louisiana black bear is to survive as a species, and if we are to ensure continued support for source population of all birds breeding in the lower Mississippi River valley.” In addition to the Sierra Club, other parties to the suit were the group American Rivers, the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, and the Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi Wildlife Federations.

The lawsuit was settled in 1997 with the Corps agreeing to perform an additional two-year environmental impact study (EIS). A federal judge stopped plans for the hurricane barrier after finding that the EIS drafted by the Army Corps of Engineers was flawed. The corps eventually abandoned the project. A congressional task force also reported that the levees that failed in New Orleans would have been raised higher and strengthened in 1996 by the Army Corps of Engineers were it not for a lawsuit filed by environmentalists led by the Sierra Club.

President Bush and Louisiana Governor Blanco (still waiting by Mayor Nagin) have taken responsibility for any problems due to the government response. Should the Sierra Club and the other parties to the suit also be held accountable for the flooding of New Orleans?

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