Boxer tells corps to act with more urgency in New Orleans

Published 6:45 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2007

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer on Monday told the Army Corps of Engineers to act with more urgency in insulating this flood-prone city from future hurricanes, and added she was fully committed to passing long-delayed legislation to fund a slew of water projects in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Boxer, D-Calif., took corps brass to task while presiding at a field hearing of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works. She chairs the committee, which oversees the corps. The agency has been blamed for the poor workmanship that led to the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

“Shake off any bureaucracy because we’re still in an emergency here,” Boxer told Maj. Gen. Don Riley, the agency’s director of civil works, and John Paul Woodley, the agency’s assistant secretary of civil works.

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In particular, the committee members seemed dismayed at a decision to shift $1.3 billion from critical projects in New Orleans to work on levees on the western side of the Mississippi River, a suburban part of the metropolitan area.

The corps has said it moved the funds because it was ready to start work on the West Bank while further study and testing was needed on the New Orleans work.

Riley assured the committee that President Bush is “fully committed” to making the region safe from future major hurricanes by adding more height to levees, fixing eroded wetlands and constructing other projects.

Boxer urged Riley and Woodley to pressure the White House to give them the funding they need to do the work as quickly as possible and not rely on the normal but time-consuming budgeting process.

Throughout the hearing, Boxer said the committee would make reauthorizing a Water Resources Development Act a top priority this year. The bill, which was last authorized by Congress in 2000, has stalled on several occasions in recent years.

Projects in Louisiana and Mississippi comprise about 40 percent of the bill’s provisions, so both states need it, especially in the wake of Katrina, Boxer said.

Everything from a wide-ranging set of coastal preservation projects to proposals on making the corps more accountable to independent engineers are covered by the bill.

Also at the hearing, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., asked the corps to present a plan on closing the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet by June rather than December. The little-used navigation channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans East has been blamed for funneling storm surge into the region.

Woodley said his agency would comply if it’s required to do so.

The hearing also probed the decisions state and federal environmental agencies made to deal with the massive cleanup of debris Katrina left in its wake.

Vitter, who is a committee member, charged that illegal dumping “has exploded, and it is not being controlled in any meaningful way.”

Mike McDaniel, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said his agency is working to stop people from breaking the law. Some parts of swampy eastern New Orleans, eyesores even before Katrina, have been turned into new, unofficial and unprotected dumps.

Vitter was also critical, during a heated exchange with McDaniel, of DEQ’s decision to reopen the Old Gentilly Landfill to take in much of the waste from Katrina.

The landfill, which some experts say was not a suitable place to dump much of the debris from demolished homes, has been problematic and environmentalists warn that contaminants may leak out of it and spoil the surrounding land and waterways.