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Louisiana's Coastal Fix Gnawed Away

The White House scales back funds for the state's 30-year project to halt widespread erosion.

June 08, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

LAKE CHARLES, La. — Louisiana's campaign to launch a $14-billion program to save the state's coast and marshlands is in jeopardy after the White House set aside its request for a 30-year engineering project to stem widespread erosion.

The White House has countered with a short-term, scaled-back version of the plan. The details are still being worked out, but state officials say the Bush administration is expected to propose spending less than $1 billion over 10 years.

Even the smaller version is far from certain: It faces competition from other environmental proposals before Congress at a time when government resources are stretched thin.

"Everybody was kind of blindsided," said Gus Stacy III, director of the McNeese State University Louisiana Environmental Research Center here. "We thought we had a swell of support. I just don't think they want to do it. And we do not have the resources to do it alone."

The erosion, researchers believe, is the result of a variety of factors, some of them caused by people, some by nature.

The state had proposed a comprehensive plan that would have included filling in dozens of canals, tearing down levees that block the natural flow of water and constructing new water storage areas on land currently set aside for agriculture or development.

"We know how to fix it," Stacy said. "We really do."

State officials also want to redirect the power of the Mississippi River to ensure that its precious silt, which shores up marshland, remains in southern Louisiana instead of being washed into the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Administration officials have also declined to release a much-anticipated report called the Louisiana Coastal Area study -- the main blueprint for saving the coast. The White House says the document is not ready, although its first drafts were finished more than a year ago.

Many here, including conservatives who rarely break ranks publicly with the administration, say they are frustrated by the White House's response.

Rep. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who is a strong backer of the White House agenda, said that administration "bean counters" had failed to grasp the sense of urgency that the state had attempted to convey in Washington.

Vitter acknowledged that assessing and reversing the damage would bring a "major, major price tag." He met recently with White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten to seek release of the blueprint and to ask for "full, more immediate federal recognition of the magnitude of the program."

"I think it's unfortunate," Vitter said of the White House's response. "I think it certainly makes sense to talk about what we would do first, what we would do in the near-term. But I don't think that should be a replacement for the [full project]."

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the White House had a "strong commitment" to the restoration of the Louisiana coast.

"We are making great headway and it is only increasing as time goes on," he said. "You have to take things in their proper steps. And then you can be successful."

A spokesman for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Chad Kolton, said the White House was only "refocusing" the Louisiana project.

"Our primary concern is that we take an approach that allows flexibility rather than locking into place a long-term plan," Kolton said. "It's difficult to imagine what you would be doing to remedy this situation 30 years from now."

For years, Louisiana officials paid little attention to protecting the environment. From toxin-emitting vinyl manufacturers in the southwest to an industrial zone south of Baton Rouge known as "cancer alley," this small, struggling state tucked away its problems and polluters, mostly next to poor neighborhoods, and called it economic progress.

But, slowly, that has changed. A variety of factors -- from transportation canals that have been dug into sensitive marshes to oil drilling to global warming, which many scientists believe is causing the sea level to rise -- has created a drastic erosion problem.

The equivalent of a football field's worth of land, mostly sensitive interior marshes near the coast, is converted into open water every 38 minutes. If nothing is done, state officials say that 500 square miles of marshland will be lost in the next 50 years. Hundreds of communities in southern Louisiana, home to an estimated 500,000 people, are in danger of becoming swamped.

Numerous industries are threatened too. The coastal area houses a vast maze of oil and gas pipelines, which are fast being exposed by erosion, prompting a number of oil spills after ships ran into them.

Louisiana also accounts for almost a third of the lower 48 states' commercial seafood landings, but its fisheries are vanishing quickly as saltwater marches inland and breeding grounds disappear.

"We hope the country understands that there is no way that this state can deal with this issue alone," said Roswell "King" Milling, president of Whitney National Bank in New Orleans and chairman of Louisiana's committee on coastal restoration.

"I think the White House understands it. Whether or not they have truly gotten themselves in a position where they are prepared to deal with it, I'm not sure."

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