State officials and the Army Corps of Engineers disagreed Wednesday on whether there's enough money left to properly complete construction of the New Orleans area levee system and interior drainage improvements. Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves told authority members Wednesday that the corps will be as much as $1 billion short, while a senior corps official said the agency has enough money on hand to do the work, if it is allowed to shift expected surplus funds from projects on the east bank of the Mississippi River to the west bank.
The authority also heard from state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration officials that contractor Shaw Group has built almost six miles of sand berms designed to trap oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, and that the state will ask BP for another $60 million in the next week to continue the project. BP already has forwarded the state $180 million of a promised $360 million the company committed for berm construction.
The disagreement over the cost of completing levee construction centers on a long-simmering argument over the last construction task scheduled for earthen levees throughout the system: deciding what type of armoring will keep the levees from washing away if they're overtopped.
Hurricane Katrina's surge eroded wide swaths of levees in New Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The state believes more sturdy armoring methods should be used to assure there is no repeat of that, Graves said.
Graves said the state is concerned that the corps will conclude that growing special species of grass on the levees will guarantee the levees won't erode if they're overtopped by surges created by storms larger than the so-called 100-year storm - which has a 1 percent chance of occurring any year - used to determine levee height.
Mike Park, deputy director of the corps' Task Force Hope, which is in charge of building levees on the east bank, said Wednesday that the corps is studying a variety of armoring materials, including grasses. The study, which won't be complete until January, seeks to determine which materials will assure the levees don't erode when overtopped by a 500-year storm, a storm with a .20 percent chance of occurring in any year, he said.
Graves told the authority that the state plans to formally object to moving money from east bank projects, while Park said that message has not yet been passed on to the corps.
The corps has identified $90 million available from east bank levee projects and $60 million from drainage projects, Park said. The money is needed to build the West Closure Complex, a near $1 billion combination of huge floodgates and pumps being built to block water from entering the Harvey and Algiers canals during hurricanes.
The corps also expects to save enough money on construction costs for the remaining work necessary to provide 1 percent protection to the region by June 1 of next year to pay for whatever armoring method is chosen, Park said.
He said that while the corps could unilaterally move the money from one project to another after informing the chairs of the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees, standard practice is to get the state, as local sponsor of the project, local officials and local members of the Congressional delegation to agree.
Park said officials with both the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East and West had provided such assurances, though they both raised concerns about the money switch. Officials with the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, local sponsor of the Southeastern Louisiana Urban Flood Damage Reduction drainage projects, objected, as did U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise. Staffers of U.S. Sen. David Vitter said they'd withhold approval pending further analysis by the state, Park said.
The sand berm project has been a lightning rod for a variety of environmental groups and scientists who contend it doesn't capture much oil, that it's being built with scarce sediment resources that won't be available for more permanent restoration projects, and that it could actually do more damage than it prevents.
The state obtained a temporary emergency permit to build two berms along the northernmost Chandeleur Islands and four more along barrier islands on the western side of the Mississippi. In issuing its permit, the corps blocked an original state proposal to dredge sand and sediment from areas about 1.5 miles off the islands, and instead required the state to use sand sources that were as much as 50 miles away. The state also was required to apply for a permanent permit that would cover a 100-mile series of berms that it had originally proposed to build.
The public comment period for that permit has ended, and several federal agencies have objected to allowing the state to continue the project beyond the segments already under way, citing the end of the flow of oil from the Macondo well and the environmental concerns.
Charlie Hess, project manager for Shaw, said dredges building the berms are expected to pick up the pace in the next few weeks as they use material mined from the Pilottown anchorage in the Mississippi River and from Pass a Loutre that has been placed in storage sites close to the project locations.
Graves said several thousand pounds of oil have been collected from two berm segments along the Chandeleurs.
Graves said he still hopes to transition the berm construction project into several projects to rebuild the nearby barrier islands, which are in the planning stage but are not funded. He said the state could take advantage of the dredges with which it already has contracts to cut the cost of the permanent work, and would use money forwarded by BP in anticipation of paying either expected fines for violating the Clean Water Act during the spill or as mitigation for damaging natural resources, as required under the federal Oil Spill Act.