This Thursday August 16th, the last two meetings for public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Pearl River “One Lake” project take place in Louisiana. Both are public meetings. One is in Baton Rouge in Senate Meeting Room “E” at the State Capitol at 10:30 a.m. Then, Thursday night the fourth and final public meeting takes place at the Slidell Municipal Auditorium at 6-8 p.m. These meetings, except for the Senate's meeting in Baton Rouge, have been hosted by the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District – a two county Levee Board, situated in the city of Flowood, near Jackson, Ms.
Yesterday, August 13th in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Senator Sharon Hewitt convened the Joint House Senate Lower Pearl River Ecosystem Task Force members to hear the preliminary comments on the draft EIS from the state agency members of the task force: LDWF, CPRA, LDEQ, LDNR, and from St. Tammany and Washington Parish Governments and local Legislative Representatives. This Task Force is a joint Senate and House collaboration. Representative Malinda White's seat on the Task Force lets her respond to issues affecting the Pearl River in her House District. Rep. White together with Sen. Hewitt, the state agency members, Perry Talley from Washington Parish Council and Gina Campo from St. Tammany Parish's Executive Branch are able to holistically view a range of issues affecting the Pearl River. Right now, the log jam removal near Bogalusa, the Pool's Bluff and Bogue Chitto sill removal effort (long term), and the Rankin Hinds One Lake project are three issues before them. Monday's meeting was a way to review and prepare for the visit by the Rankin Hinds Drainage District this Thursday morning in Baton Rouge in front of the Lower Pearl River Task Force.
It was a very telling session and a foreshadowing of Thursday’s meeting at the state Capitol because every agency was quite critical of the DEIS documents. Overall, they found it very dismissive of downstream ecological and flow issues as well as human use and economic issues. Wildlife and Fisheries pointed out that anecdotal reports (not biological surveys) were used to make the claim that the Gulf sturgeon doesn’t use the protected critical habitat area of the Pearl River that will be dredged and widened for a lake. St. Tammany Parish engineer Dr. deEtte Smythe dissected the post-1960 Pearl River flow records to show that extreme low-flow conditions on the river happen frequently enough that the Lower Pearl really needs a water budget that can be agreed upon by upstream water managers. The LDNR explained that a Coastal Zone consistency review is a strong legal hook that the state possesses and that such a review is being required of the Drainage District and the Vicksburg Corps by Louisiana for this project. LDEQ was unpleasantly surprised at the number of Jackson landfills and polluted industrial sites that will have to be dredged and disturbed to build the lake, including one that will be bisected (cut through). Some of these landfills date back to pre-hazardous waste law days and the runoff and underground water leaching into the Pearl is a big concern. LDEQ separated short-term impacts to flow and turbidity in the construction phase from long-term impacts from the leaking leaching landfills and stated more than once that the downstream impacts have been downplayed, even “blown-off” by the District’s DEIS writers.
The public meeting process started about three weeks ago with a Jackson meeting at the Agriculture and Forestry Museum auditorium, and a meeting a week later in Pearlington at the Infinity NASA Science Center. Both of these meetings contained a 25 minute presentation to a seated audience, followed by a question session at “expert tables” in the back of the room. Both meetings also had a court reporter who would record verbal comments. Three people used the court reporter in Jackson, and about two dozen spoke for the court reporter in Pearlington to leave comment for the record.
The meetings have all followed the same format and Thursday night’s meeting in Slidell will be no different. There is a 25 minute presentation by the Drainage District, which so far has served to explain and praise the lake alternative. The speakers have explained why the other options are vastly more expensive and undesirable, and then meeting attendees have been left to figure out which issue expert table may be the best place to ask their questions or discuss issues. The tables have engineers for the flow, sediment and dam operations questions, a pair of biologists for the wildlife, wetland, habitat and endangered species questions and lawyers for legal or process questions and to help guide people to the right tables. Discussions at the issue tables are not comments and aren’t saved for the public record.
The non-profit Pearl River Vision Foundation representative is also there to greet people and direct traffic. This non-profit group is the other half of the public/private partnership working with the Drainage District to push for a new lake for Jackson. Behind the scenes and out of the light of the public process, the Foundation has raised money for the DEIS writing effort, and has been busy lobbying Congress and the Mississippi Legislature to clear obstacles to their selecting and funding a lake alternative for flood control in Jackson. The Foundation’s efforts have insured that the Jackson Metro business community sees the lake only as a savior for the ailing city and not as an added impact to an already disturbed, dammed river. The term used most frequently by the business community is “game changer", when in fact the lake should be described as a fresh water flow and habitat degradation experiment for the Lower Pearl's swamps, marshes, industries, towns and wildlife.
The expert tables get crowded and it is hard to hear the issue expert’s answers, but that’s the way the Drainage District wants to present its information. After 10-15 minutes of noise and standing three-deep around a map waiting for a chance to ask a question, many people look at their watches or hear their stomachs growling and head for home. That’s a natural reaction to these meetings, but if you don’t stay and either make a written comment or speak to the court reporter, your views on this destructive and badly conceived project won’t be preserved and can’t be read by the decision makers at the Corps of Engineers months from now in Washington D.C. Meeting guests need to be willing to stay and get their comments in the record one way or another. Written comments can be brought or jotted down on forms at the meeting. The comments from the 2013 meetings on project scoping for One Lake were overwhelmingly favorable to the project (90%) and most of the comments were produced by Jackson residents. This time around, the Public Participation Appendix section in the project's Final EIS needs to better reflect downstream citizen's sentiments against this project.
Nobody downstream who has read this Draft Environmental Impact Statement – even just the executive summary part- can look at these documents and believe that they are discussing the same river they know and see year-in and year-out. The river regulated by the decisions of the far away Ross Barnett Reservoir Authority, the river with its banks caving in after every high water event , with too much nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from Jackson’s sewage treatment plants and urban runoff, with its channel getting shallower, suffering from salt water intrusion in its lower end – this well-loved but visibly impairedPearl River that needs restoration and not more dams upstream.
So, if you take the time to go to the public meeting, please ignore your stomach, brave the noise and go speak to the court reporter and/or leave a written record of your comments and your visit. Your comments will be part of the final EIS, and will be seen by decision maker, the Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, and his staff.
In my remarks during the open comment session at the end of Senator Hewitt’s Monday meeting, I made the point that the Vicksburg Corps of Engineers District has not been involved in the review of this document, but that if the project is funded and goes forward, the Vicksburg Corps will be charged by Congress to manage its construction. The Drainage District fully expects to hand the process off to the Corps of Engineers and get reimbursed for what they have spent on the DEIS studies. When I last phoned the St. Louis Corps District, in charge of Agency Technical Review for the past 3 years, and complained about the quality of DEIS documents, I was told that this DEIS was published before the Drainage District- the DEIS’ authors- had responded to the last round of comments from the Corps’ review team. I was told that this DEIS was not a “very well buttoned-up document”. Having to read and examine a document released prematurely and in an incomplete form has been my frustration recently, but after hearing the Louisiana agency representatives speak in Baton Rouge on Monday, I realize I am not alone.
Thursday in Slidell is the last public meeting for input in the draft DEIS process, although the comment period closes Sept. 6th. I hope people who travel to Slidell will overcome frustration, hunger and noise and stay to leave their thoughts in the record, in writing or with the court reporter. For the Thursday 8/16 meeting at 6-8 pm, address of Slidell Municipal Auditorium is 2056 Second Street Slidell, La 70458.
Andrew Whitehurst is Gulf Restoration Network's water program director and covers wetland and water issues in Mississippi.