Fix the pumps

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Public Comment

[Updated 3/22/11, see below]

The Corps is working on "remediation" projects along all three outfall canals, with projected finish dates of June, 2011. We know why they're in such a hurry (after five years), at least along the London Avenue canal - the insanely low Safe Water Elevations found in the October, 2010 London Avenue canal SWE report.

That hurry to finish has manifested itself in a little bureaucratic hiccup too. Before the projects were authorized by the Corps, they went through a public approval process under the National Environental Policy Act, or NEPA. That process, which is accelerated for the hurricane protection work due to the outstanding need for that work, involves publication of an Individual Environmental Report (IER) and invitation of a month's worth of public comment before the official okay is given on any given project or collection of projects.

Sometimes, after that approval is given, supplements to IER's are issued to accomodate problems that may have cropped up. Those supplements also have 30 day comment periods attached to them, and - theoretically - the work in those supplements is supposed to wait for the comment period to close and a second approval signature.

In the case of the outfall canal work, IER #27 was issued on September 3, 2010 and was open for comments through October 1, 2010. A public meeting was held on September 16, 2010. The commander of the New Orleans District signed the IER on October 2, 2010, contracts were bid out in November and were awarded in December. The work has been proceeding since then, including the work along the London Avenue canal. That's the way the process should go.

Part of that London Avenue canal work involves putting stuff like barges and such in the canal. The best way to do this was from the many bridges over the canal. However, there are many road repairs happening around the Gentilly neighborhood in which the canal sits, and the City of New Orleans apparently said "no" to the Corps' requests to close bridges.

So the Corps has proposed using empty lots lining the canal to perform many of the same functions they would have from the bridges. 13 of these lots are owned by the Louisiana Land Trust as a result of homeowner sales to the Road Home Program after Katrina. The 14th lot is owned by the city and is used by the Parks & Parkways department.

The way the Corps made this announcement was through the NEPA process. Specifically, they issued a supplement to IER 27, called IERS 27.a. It was issued March 14th and is open for public comment through April 14th.

Previously, as published in the original IER 27, this was the map of lots the Corps planned to use for equipment staging and access:

The red areas in the inset maps were the planned staging areas.

And here are the revised maps from the new supplemental, showing the original staging locations in yellow and the new ones in blue:

According to the supplemental, the Corps plans to use the empty lots as follows:
"(1) 5020 Warrington Drive: A concrete truck would be driven across the empty lot on mats to the canal floodwall, from which concrete would be pumped to the construction locations along the canal.
(2) 5268 Warrington Drive: same use as 5020 Warrington Drive.
(3) 5332 Warrington Drive: same use as 5020 Warrington Drive.
(4) 5736, 5760, 5764, 5788 and 5784 Warrington Drive: Concrete trucks would be driven across these empty lots on mats to the canal floodwall, from which the concrete would be pumped to the construction locations along the wall. These lots would also be used for the stockpiling of approximately 150 cubic yards of borrow material.
(5) 5245 Pratt Drive: same as 5020 Warrington Drive.
(6) 5525, 5519, 5511, and 5501 Pratt Drive: These lots would be used in lieu of the bridges to deliver barges and sheetpile to the inside of the canal.
(7) City of New Orleans Park and Parkways lot (end of Steven Girard Avenue): this lot would be used for stockpiling of materials. Some vegetation would be cleared between the road and the floodwall to provide access."

Anyhow here's the hiccup: the Corps is already using these empty lots, and has been for weeks.

Here's pictures of construction equipment on the empty lot at 5332 Warrington from February and from earlier this month:

I don't have a problem with the Corps using these lots, and hopefully the neighbors aren't being inconvenienced while this work proceeds this spring. What I have a problem with is the Corps going through the NEPA process seeking public comment on work that is already underway, and not mentioning that in their documentation.

This is what tight deadlines do - stuff slips through the cracks. Probably someone at the Corps or their contractor didn't get with the city, or vice versa, and they ended up at an impasse over the use of the bridges after the original IER was approved last October. So this idea was crafted (and one has to wonder why they didn't do this in the first place, aside from the extreme irony of the Corps using empty lots which were made that way due to their earlier incompetence). Only, they decided it was better to seek forgiveness rather than permission, and issued the IER supplemental after they'd already started using the empty lots.

It's admittedly minor, but it speaks to a consistent Corps pattern of leaving the public out of decisions, or - as in this case - giving the public the illusion of input when the decision was made long before. That's not fair.

[Update, 3/22/11]

After repeated inquiries, the Corps' Joan Exnicios wrote back about this matter. I've highlighted the relevant portions:
"Thank you for your interest in the outfall canal remediation project and IER Supplemental 27.a. We have held numerous public meetings informing the public on Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction projects in the area and held a specific meeting about the remediation work that is occurring along the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue outfall canals on September 16, 2010. Public meetings are not normally held for minor changes to projects disclosed in IER supplements. The photos you sent are of remediation work within ROW which is estimated to be complete in June 2011. The contractor removed the crane from the 5332 Warrington on March 10, 2011 and will not use it again until the public review and comment period for the supplement is complete. Public notification for the project followed the standard procedures including posting notices in the Times Picayune, USA Today, and press releases, and individual mail outs. In addition, the Filmore Gardens, Burbank Gardens, and Vista Park neighborhood associations, representatives from the City of New Orleans, and neighbors in the project area were contacted in regards to this project, this was how the vacant lots were identified for use to minimize traffic impacts by closing bridges crossing the London Avenue Canal."

What if there hadn't been pictures? Also, who authorized the work to proceed in the first place? Why can't they just admit they were wrong?

Also, would it really be that hard to have a public meeting for the dozens of residents who will be directly impacted by heavy equipment moving through their neighborhood when they weren't expecting it before?


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