Louisiana Race to Save Coast Hits Federal Speed Bumps

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By Nushin Huq

Louisiana has been losing the battle to keep up with increasingly fast coastal erosion. The centerpiece of its efforts to speed up restoration got a streamlining boost from the outgoing Obama administration, but the state recently learned it still will take at least another five years of permit reviews before construction can begin.

Time is critical, because the longer the state waits, the more expensive restoration will be, officials say. Models of sea level rise show that 50 years from now, Louisiana could lose up to 4,000 square miles of coast, the state’s draft 2017 coastal master plan said. That is double what scientists predicted just five years ago.

Coastal marshes provide a natural barrier to protect the coast against storms and land loss, and so Louisiana is desperately trying to rebuild them. The coast—with fishing, tourism and the oil and gas industry—is the lifeblood of the economy.

The state’s Coastal Restoration Master Plan outlines how the state will combat coastal erosion using a combination of sediment-diversion projects, raising infrastructure, buying property and moving people inland. The newest plan, priced at $50 billion, will go to the legislature. Lawmakers have passed previous versions of it unanimously.

“There’s already been recognition to move away from the plan no net loss of wetlands. That’s impossible now, we’re beyond that point,” Valsin A. Marmillion, managing director of America’s WETLAND Foundation, a Louisiana-based non-profit organization, told Bloomberg BNA. “We lose a football field of land an hour to coastal erosion. The planning process doesn’t keep up with that. The $50 billion plan is to return 800 square miles of wetland by 50 years.”

The federal government in January designated the $1.4 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project, a key part of the plan, for streamlined permitting under the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. On March 15, however, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will need until at least 2022 to complete the reviews needed for permits.Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who earlier called streamlining the project a “major victory,” sent a letter to President Donald Trump, asking that the Mid-Barataria project, along with four other coastal restoration projects, be considered under the president’s Jan. 24 executive order, Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects. The executive order did not mention projects such as these that fall under the FAST Act.

Federal budget cuts, meanwhile, could hinder the science, research and processes needed in decision-making on the project, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority outreach and engagement director Anne Hawes said.

Funding for the project itself, however, does not face the same cuts. Louisiana potentially may fund the construction of the Mid-Barataria project in part using Deepwater Horizon oil spill criminal settlement funds, which are overseen by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Hawes said. That funding is largely protected by a federal consent decree. Using the funds for the project, however, would require approval through the Louisiana Trustee Implementation Group.

Other funding sources for the project are under such programs as those established by the Gulf of Mexico Energy and Security Act and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Trust Fund.

Marshes Vanish

The marshes are disappearing due to levees and floodgates on the Mississippi River preventing the channeling of fresh water and sediment into the Gulf of Mexico. Also at work are the dredging of canals for oil and gas activities, sea level rise as a result of climate change, and storms, the state’s draft master plan said.

The Mississippi River levees provide the region with flood protection, but prevent sediments and fresh water from the river to flow into the rest of the ecosystem, slowly killing off the marshes. This is one of the primary causes of the loss of marshes, Marmillion said.

In addition, projections in the draft master plan show significant loss of land within 40 to 50 years because of rising sea levels. The plan says that in the past decade “sea level rise projections have dramatically increased” and that sea level rise and land subsidence “are influential environmental drivers for coastal Louisiana.”

Dredging of canals for energy exploration and pipelines also cleared parts of marshland, which eventually became open water. Recently, a number of parishes along the coast have filed lawsuits against the oil and gas industry, asking them for help to restore the marshes.

“The only impact the coastal erosion has on the oil and gas industry is the state is suing the industry for coastal loss,” Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, told Bloomberg BNA.

The industry followed state and federal regulations, and it is unfair to ask it to pay for something that was legal, he said. Recently, a federal appeals court sided with the industry in a lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority against the industry, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Hess, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Koch Industries, related to coastal loss. This issue will most likely end up before the Supreme Court, Briggs said ( Bd. Cmsr SE La Flood Protc. v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. , 5th Cir., 15-30162, 3/3/17 ).

Sediment Diversion

The $1.4 billion Mid-Barataria project would capture sediment from the Mississippi River and move it into Barataria Bay, creating land and rebuilding marshes. The Army Corps of Engineers received the initial application for the Mid-Bataria Sediment project in June 2016.

“This project is really unprecedented,” Ricky Boyett, public affairs chief at the Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s not only highly complex engineering, but it’s a major environmental undertaking.”

The Corps will need to issue a permit under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, which is for any project that could impact a navigable waterway, Boyett said. Another permit is a Clean Water Act Section 44 permit for projects impacting wetlands. The final project permit needed is Rivers and Harbor Act Section 408 permit, which evaluates anything that could potentially impact a federal project, such as the Mississippi levee system. The project will only be able be able to get the other two permits if it gets the 408 permit, Boyett said.

“At the end of the day, we’ll make one final decision on whether they can have a permit or not,” Boyett said. “We’re able to consolidate those reviews and work those alongside each other.”

The project was placed on a federal dashboard for streamlined infrastructure permitting in January during the final days of the Obama administration.

Months before, in October 2016, the White House Office of Management and Budget and Council on Environmental Quality issued a memo ordering federal agencies to make ecosystem restoration a priority, including timely review and permitting of Gulf Coast environmental restoration. The memo mentioned sediment-diversion projects as an example of the type of complex restoration project that warranted extra coordination.

Edwards, the governor, said in a statement in January the inclusion of the project on the dashboard was “a major victory and it means that we will be more efficient and effective in our mission to restore our coast for generations to come.” His office declined to answer questions about the five-year permitting process.

Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority chairman Johnny Bradberry called the timeline unacceptable during a March 15 meeting, according to local news reports.

Not So Fast

Title 41 of the FAST Act outlines project environmental review requirements and aims to increase predictability, transparency of the environmental review process and improve early coordination of agency schedules, a White House blog post said. It is a misconception that FAST-41 projects will be permitted more quickly, Boyett said. No regulatory processes are reduced and no environmental regulations are exempt. A complex project like this will take time to review, Boyett said.

“The advantage with designation develops a coordinated schedule,” he said. “We’re held to that schedule.”

Much information still needs to be developed, Boyett added. Designs need to be submitted, for example, and agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries must conduct assessments.

Edwards’ office referred all current questions about the coastal master plan and the Mid-Barataria project to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The CPRA is working with the Corps staff daily on the planning and permitting process for the project, the CPRA’s Hawes told Bloomberg BNA when asked about the proposed five-year timeline.

“CPRA anticipates opportunities to shorten the schedule but recognizes the level of effort that will be needed to execute this permit,” she said.

Time Crunch

There is little chance that Louisiana’s coast will be able to withstand accelerating sea level rise, especially in the western part of the state, unless major efforts begin to rebuild Louisiana’s wetlands, according to a Tulane University study released March 14. The rate of sea level rise in the region over the past six to 10 years amounts to half an inch per year on average.

“Really, [sediment diversion] should have all started in the 1980s,” Torbjorn E. Tornqvist, report co-author and a geology professor at Tulane, told Bloomberg BNA. “If would have happened, we would have been in a different situation. But obviously, that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Another five years to permitting does not take into account the additional years it will take to construct the project, Tornqvist said.

“If it really plays out that way, we’re in really, really serious trouble,” Tornqvist said. “We’re already on borrowed time right now.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nushin Huq in Houston at nHuq@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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