BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana officials could sue in an attempt to force the federal government to pay for certain coastal recovery and levee projects.
The state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority voted Tuesday to authorize two lawsuits against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
One would argue the Corps must pay fully to repair damage caused by the now-closed Mississippi-River Gulf Outlet, an amount estimated at $3 billion. A second lawsuit would seek to force the Corps to pay the full cost of maintaining a levee along the Algiers Canal on the Mississippi River's west bank.
"This is a lawsuit on a project that we have worked for four years trying to avoid this situation," said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, saying discussions between the state and the Corps have reached an impasse.
The state contends that language included in federal legislation de-authorizing the 72-mile shipping shortcut between the Gulf of Mexico and the Industrial Canal in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina required that the corps complete a study of how to restore the area and complete any projects at full federal expense.
The Corps contends that a 1986 water resources bill requires all restoration project costs be shared, with 65 percent paid by the federal government and 35 percent by the state.
Col. Richard Hansen, commander of the corps' New Orleans district, said he couldn't comment on any potential litigation, but could talk about the project itself. The feasibility study for that project was completed in 2012 for the project, which would restore 57,000 acres of wetlands around the former Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.
"To date, a willing non-federal sponsor has not been identified," Hansen said.
Even without that non-federal cost-share sponsor, he said, the Corps decided to recommend the plan because of the project's importance to the area's ecosystem. The state has agreed to be the non-federal sponsor for the project while maintaining that position doesn't obligate the state to put any money toward the work.
The issue involving operation and maintenance costs for the levees along the Algiers Canal also arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Assistant Attorney General David Peterson said. At stake is millions of dollars over the life of the levee, Graves said.
Until post-Katrina improvements to West Bank levees were completed, the corps continued to pay the full cost of operation and maintenance of that levee segment, as required under several earlier bills.
But when a post-Katrina law included language requiring a 35 percent local share of the cost for most post-Katrina levee improvements, the Corps contended that provision also applied to the Algiers Canal levee.