Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Editorial: Break logjam on eastern New Orleans flood protection

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warns that legal disputes over property access needed to build levees, floodwalls and gates in eastern New Orleans could mean that area won't get 100-year protection by the promised June 1, 2011, deadline, says an editorial in The Times-Picayune.

Work to raise the height of the levees at Lake Ponchartrain in Kenner continues. But similar projects in New Orleans east are stalled because of legal issues. That deadline is of vital importance, and all parties need to work to get these projects moving -- including the corps. State and local officials say that the agency caused delays by raising last-minute objections to complex contracts that were negotiated by property owners, the local levee district and the state -- in the presence of corps attorneys.

Col. Robert Sinkler, director for the corps' Hurricane Protection Office, said that contracts for eight projects should have been awarded by the end of last year, and all of them are now eight months behind schedule.

"The residents in Orleans East deserve to get 'their' construction projects underway like Jefferson Parish, Orleans Metro and St. Bernard Parish,'' Col. Sinkler wrote in an e-mail. Most actions are sitting on someone's desk somewhere for action. If you are a member of a government organization and want to assist me in calling, e-mailing or standing on someone's desk to get this logjam busted loose, let me know.''

But it sounds like the desk that Col. Sinkler most needs to stand on is in the Washington offices of the corps.

Two lawyers who participated in negotiations say that everyone thought the work was complete until about a week ago, when the corps sent the contracts back with complaints about some of the language.

"They did not want to concur with some of the conditions their own attorneys had agreed with,'' said David Peterson of the state attorney general's office.

It's a shame that the corps didn't raise objections sooner, and the agency needs to show that it has a sense of urgency in resolving the impasse.

The corps objects to a provision in the contract with Norfolk Southern Railway that requires the agency to pay the railroad for delays caused by construction. The corps won't accept that responsibility, and the levee district doesn't have the money to pay the cost.

Susan Terpay, spokeswoman for the railroad, said that Norfolk Southern understands the project's importance and is working toward an agreement. That's critical. While the railroad is understandably concerned about losses from construction delays, it should be mindful of the losses that could be caused by storm surge.

The corps also has problems with a provision that would allow the state Department of Transportation and Development to halt construction if it threatens traffic flow. The corps wants unrestricted permission, and an attorney for the levee district said that the highway office is "bending quite a bit,'' as talks continue.

That's encouraging, but all parties need to show willingness to compromise so that this work can go forward. That includes the corps.

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