The bill, House Joint Resolution 2, now goes to a House-Senate Conference Committee where Senate leaders will try to convince their House counterparts to sign off on the disaster assistance package authored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
In debating the omnibus bill, which rolls 11 non-defense appropriations bills that were not passed last fall into one measure, senators also turned back an effort to delete $14 million in startup construction funds for the long-sought Yazoo Pumping Station in Mississippi’s South Delta.
Senators defeated a motion to cut the funding made by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 68-29. McCain claimed that the pumping station would drain 200,000 acres of wetlands for the benefit of “a few wealthy landowners”
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., defended the project, saying that many of the more than 1,000 homes to be protected by the South Delta station are owned by blacks. Lott, Cochran and other proponents also noted the project calls for the Corps of Engineers to acquire 62,000 acres for reforestation.
“The purpose is not to create new agricultural opportunities,” said Sen. Cochran, who also spoke for the project. “It is to prevent the flooding of schools and hospitals and businesses.”
A group of south Delta residents who recently traveled to Washington to meet with the Environmental Protection Agency expressed frustration at the continued delays and political maneuvering around the project.
Members of the South Delta Flood Control Committee said the EPA’s opposition to the Yazoo Backwater Pumping Station “is misguided and harmful to the future of the South Delta Region.
“We have met in good faith with the Environmental Protection Agency, other Federal agencies, environmental organizations, and other local and state groups to reach a compromise on this project,” said Ruby Johnson of Cary, Miss., chairman of the South Delta Flood Control Committee.
“We reached a compromise plan which means that the South Delta will take 7 feet more floodwaters and 62,000 acres of woods to satisfy those who call themselves environmentalists. Now, after all these discussions, they want to sneak around and oppose us getting the water off of us.”
Members of the local committee told the EPA that there is nothing less sanitary than the constant floodwaters that plague their homes and property.
“It is not healthy for my children and I to walk around our house in knee-deep flood waters,” said Anderson Jones of Fitler, Miss., a member of the committee. “There sure is nothing healthy for my children to have to walk through polluted water to catch the school bus, or to fall out of the boat when I am pulling them to the school bus.”
Johnson and other committee members said they are grateful for the support that they have received from their elected officials, including Sens. Cochran and Lott, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. But she expressed disappointment at the reaction of EPA officials to their plight.
“We have sat at the table and given and given to them so that we might get a project that will allow our children and grandchildren to remain in this area and make a living,” said Johnson. “We will fight in our efforts to make sure that the South Delta receives the same treatment that the rest of the United States, surrounding states, and the Mississippi Delta have been given in flood control.”
On the disaster funding provisions, the House leadership has not been as aggressive in pushing for emergency assistance as the Senate, but the path toward compromise may have been eased with the administration’s endorsement of the Cochran amendment authorizing the $3.1 billion in disaster aid.