White Elephant on the LeveeMar 29th, 2011 | By William Dilella | Category: top story
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, and the U.S. Army Chief of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, visited the site of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West Closure Complex, in Belle Chasse, on the Intracostal Canal this past week. The GIWW West Closure Complex consists of the largest drainage pump station in the world, floodwalls, sluice gates, foreshore protection, and an earthen levee, and is designed as a major component of the New Orleans Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. According to the Corps, this complex will significantly reduce the risk to a large area of the West Bank by diminishing direct impacts from storm surge to over 25 miles of levees, floodwalls, a gate, and pumping stations along the Harvey and Algiers canals.
The complex is scheduled to be completed June 1, the start of 2011 hurricane season. However, local officials are questioning the need for, and the cost of the project.
Risk Reduction vs. Protection
Darcy and Van Antwerp toured the facility, including the pumps that are so powerful they could fill an Olympic-sized pool in 4.6 seconds.
The New Orleans District Commander and District Engineer, Col. Edward R. Fleming, in attendance that day, said, “This is a great day for hurricane protection.”
But that is not actually what the station does. As stated by Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp, Assistant Secretary Darcy, and the Corps itself, the pump station is part of the Greater New Orleans Hurricane Damage Risk Reduction System. It does not provide guaranteed protection. It will however make the area more ready with 100-year design elevations, for a hurricane surge there is a one percent chance will be equaled or exceeded any year, up to one hundred years.
Even so, some parish officials could easily envision more deserving projects to have spent almost a billion dollars on.
“Someone in Washington wanted the biggest pump station,” said Parish President Billy Nungesser. “The only time we’ll use it will be to pump out the water once we are under the river.”
The End is in Sight
Construction has been taking place in 10-hour shifts, six days a week in order to meet the June 1 promise. That is in addition to the 3 million man-hours already put in on the project.
“We will make the deadline, or break our backs trying,” the Lt. General told the crew on one of his first visits to the project site.
“This is a reality,” he proudly proclaimed as he stood on the newly constructed levee, pointing over his shoulder to the towering concrete facility.
So the Corps has, nearly, constructed the largest station of its kind on Earth, and though the project may indeed be a feat, that does not mean it was love at first sight for the people of Plaquemines. Concerns over the West Closure Complex are not about finishing the pump station, but what happens when it is finished.
Once the Army Corps of Engineers completes the project, “the responsibility for future levee lifts is not determined,” so says an official statement by the Corps of Engineers. This is a statement that Darcy and Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp continued to preach at the press conference. Completion means the station is no longer the Corps’ responsibility.
The official statement also says that, “The Project Partnership Agreements…specifically state that the non-Federal Sponsor’s responsibilities are to perform operation, maintenance, repair, rehabilitations and replacement, and do not include future lifts to account for subsidence and sea level rise.” And that “future levee lifts will be needed after the system is completed,” but that any of these lifts, “would require new Congressional authorization and appropriated funding.”
In short terms, neither the Corps nor the Federal Government have any plans on funding the maintenance of the drainage pump station. And so as the construction of the West Closure Complex continues, so does the debate on just who will have to shoulder the facility’s maintenance costs.
And the bill is substantial. The potential expenses for the complex are upwards of $5 million a year.
As of now, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority West (SLFPAW) would be responsible for the maintenance of the complex—and for all those millions attached to it. The agency currently has an annual budget of just over $7 million. So short of action by Congress, that money has to come from the non-federal sponsor of the project, meaning the State of Louisiana or the parish itself.
President Nungesser’s response to that: “We didn’t ask for it, we shouldn’t have to pay for it.”