Corps releases hurricane proposal

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the first phase of a two-part report examining the cumulative impacts and benefits of building the $14 billion hurricane protection system in the greater New Orleans area on Tuesday, opening a 60-day comment period.

It isn’t clear how much public comment the report will generate since it is a summary of what’s been discussed in several hundred public meetings since 2007, said Laura Lee Wilkinson, environmental manager with the New Orleans district corps.

“We’ve tried to engage the public to let them know what was happening every step of the way,” Wilkinson said.

The “Comprehensive Environmental Document Greater New Orleans Area Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System” fulfills a requirement to look at the cumulative effect that building the hurricane protection system has had in a five-parish area around New Orleans including St. Charles, Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.

However, it is just the first step since construction of the system is expected to continue until August 2014, according to the report.

The report is the result of an alternate way the corps was allowed to do environmental impact statements required by federal law. The streamlined process allows officials to speed up construction.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the corps was directed to improve and build a hurricane protection system for the region that would protect against a 100-year storm. A 100-year storm is one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

Although the federal National Environmental Policy Act requires a federal agency to obtain public input on an entire project before construction and consider it in reviewing potential consequences, that process could have taken years.

To speed up the work, an alternative arrangement was approved in the case of the New Orleans-area levee system to allow pieces of the system to go through mini-environmental reviews.

The document released Tuesday compiles the individual environmental reports to look at cumulative impact of building the system based on the reports that were completed by Nov. 15, 2010. Reports completed after this time and until the entire system is completed will be added as supplemental reports at a later date, according to the document.

In addition to looking at past and current impacts, the report also examines future impacts as maintenance to the system continues until 2057.

Impacts from the construction include loss of farmland soils in areas where the corps used soil to build up levees, short-term impacts from extra construction traffic and longer-term issues of road damage from that traffic.

About 1,600 acres of wetlands and 3,500 acres of bottomland hardwood areas were directly affected by the system’s construction and borrow sites, where dirt was excavated to build levees, the report says, but much of that will be mitigated by creating or restoring other wetlands and forest areas.

Although 68 potential borrow sites were cleared for use in the project, the corps only needed to use 25 of those which greatly reduced the impact, Wilkinson said.

In addition, she said, none of the borrow sites were located in wetland areas.

“That’s a major point,” she said.

The “Comprehensive Environmental Document Greater New Orleans Area Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System” is open for 60 days of public comment and review with all comments due to the corps by April 8.

The report is available at http://www.nolaenvironmental.gov and questions or comments can be sent to Sandy Stiles, regional planning and environmental division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 60267, New Orleans, LA 70160-0267 or by email at mvnenvironmental@usace.army.mil.