Why would the Environmental Protection Agency choose to ignore documents that appear to indicate the Yazoo Backwater Project should have been exempt from provisions of the Clean Water Act?

That’s the question Mississippi Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, both Republicans, are asking EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson after Johnson intervened to veto the project, a key element of efforts to relieve flooding in the south Delta of Mississippi.

At the time of the move in late August, EPA officials said the project could be exempt from the Clean Water Act if there was proof a 1982 Environmental Impact Statement had been submitted to Congress in advance of appropriations for its construction. Section 404(r) of the Clean Water Act provides for such an exemption.

After consulting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last summer, EPA officials said they found no evidence that the 1982 Environmental Impact Statement was submitted.

“However, the Corps of Engineers has provided documents to the Mississippi Levee Board showing that the 1982 EIS was submitted to Congress,” Levee Board officials said in a press release issued Nov. 21. “These key documents were ignored by EPA.”

The Levee Board said the documents reveal the Corps of Engineers sent the 1982 EIS to congressional committees and members in March 1983, which would have been standard procedure for the Corps of Engineers at the time.

“Documents from this period reflect that the Corps expected the project to be exempt,” the Levee Board said. “Sens. Cochran and Wicker have now asked the obvious question: Why was this critical information overlooked or ignored in the EPA veto?”

EPA officials now say they specifically considered the potential applicability of the Clean Water Act exemption to the Yazoo Backwater project and found no evidence the exemption applied.

“After a lengthy review of the project involving other Federal and State agencies, local residents, and the public, what EPA did find is that the proposed Yazoo pumps is an incredibly destructive and wasteful project costing taxpayers millions of dollars with few benefits and impacting more than 65,000 acres of valuable wetlands and other waters,” said Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water.

“EPA remains committed to identifying effective and environmentally responsible flood control alternatives for the residents of the Yazoo Backwater area and is hosting meetings in Mississippi in December with Federal and State representatives to evaluate potential options.”

Grumbles said EPA believes the approach is more productive than “wasting time and more taxpayer dollars debating EPA’s veto action in Federal Court. We encourage the Mississippi Levee Board to move beyond the destructive Yazoo Pumps Project and to work collaboratively to identify sustainable and effective flood protection alternatives.”

“We fail to understand how the Bush administration could at the same time release these documents to the public and fail to address them in relation to the veto of this project,” said Peter Nimrod, chief engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board. “We have always felt the Yazoo Backwater Project is exempt from the EPA’s authority.”

The Yazoo Backwater Project has been on the drawing board for decades. During periods of high water on the Mississippi River, the discharge outlets for 4,000 square miles of Delta rainfall runoff must be closed to prevent Mississippi backwater from entering the south Delta. The runoff area extends as far north as Clarksdale, Miss.

The Corps of Engineers has determined that the only economically and environmentally feasible means for evacuating the 10-county watershed of floodwaters from the south Delta is to lift those waters over the existing backwater levees through a pumping station near where the Yazoo River would normally flow into the Mississippi.

In recent years, members of the Mississippi Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have lobbied against plans to complete the Yazoo Backwater pump project but have offered no alternatives other than abandoning the south Delta to allow it to return to its natural setting.

Proponents of the Yazoo Backwater Project, who would have to be relocated from the area if that occurred, have said moving is not an option for most of the area’s residents.

“For many years, opponents of the Yazoo Backwater Project have not hesitated to misrepresent and even distort the facts,” said Nimrod in the press release. “This latest revelation, that the government hid critical documents, is of a far greater magnitude.

“EPA agreed that the ‘key issue’ for application of the exemption was whether the 1982 EIS was submitted to Congress. The Corps had documents reflecting that this occurred. Yet the EPA Final Determination imposing the “veto” does not even mention these documents. The Levee Board finds it hard to believe that this was a benign oversight.”

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