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Corps Suspends Dredging of Controversial Ship Channel

Wed December 07, 2005 - Southeast Edition
CEG



NEW ORLEANS (AP) A ship channel that acted as a conduit for Hurricane Katrina storm surge that inundated St. Bernard Parish won’t be dredged for at least a year while officials decide whether the controversial waterway should be closed or reshaped.

The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, or MR-GO — often pronounced “Mr. Go” — was completed in 1965 as a 76-mi. shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Industrial Canal.

During Hurricane Katrina, storm surge that might otherwise have been slowed by wetlands flowed easily into the channel en route to overwhelming levees along both the channel and the Industrial Canal.

In the process, sediment that settled on the channel bottom lowered its minimum depth from 36 ft. to approximately 23 ft., too shallow for many of the vessels that had used it.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Spokesman Tim Dugan said that $14 million originally authorized for dredging the MR-GO has been removed from the Corps’ budget.

“There is no funding for dredging the MR-GO in fiscal 2006, which goes through the end of September,” Dugan said. “There’s not really been any decision on the immediate future of the MR-GO. The navigation industry and Congress will play a large role in determining the future of the MR-GO.”

The Port of New Orleans has opposed closing the channel until construction is finished on an alternate route provided by a $650-million lock from the Industrial Canal to the Mississippi River. Last year, the corps projected completion of the lock in 2017.

St. Bernard Parish Council Chairman Joey DiFatta applauded the decision to suspend dredging.

“This is a step in the right direction, but we’ve got to redirect the money for better flood control or better levees,” DiFatta said.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, said he had asked the corps to suspend dredging until the issue was resolved.

Shipping along the MR-GO never lived up to expectations. Traffic had slowed over recent decades to one vessel a day by 2004, port officials have said.

But seven companies set up shop along the Industrial Canal on the promise of a channel 36 ft. deep and most cannot operate in their current locations until the lock project is finished or the MR-GO is dredged.

“It’s about getting access to businesses that have been promised access to the Gulf of Mexico,” port Spokesman Chris Bonura said.

Port officials said it would cost approximately $280 million to relocate the companies on the Industrial Canal elsewhere, likely to spots along the Mississippi River.

The Corps’ spending to maintain the MR-GO has averaged $16.1 million annually since 1985, for a total of $322 million in the past two decades.

Prior to the Corps’ suspension of dredging, port and St. Bernard officials announced that they jointly supported dredging the MR-GO to 28 ft. and building a flood gate that would close the channel during storms. That way, only two companies would have to be temporarily relocated while the lock is finished. Two more concrete companies would have to temporarily change their shipping routes and methods, possibly using barges to link their facilities to larger cargo ships docked in the Mississippi, Bonura said.

The port also wants the federal government to speed up work on the lock, which was authorized in 1954. Construction did not begin until 2002 and has been slowed by a lack of funding, Bonura said.

“We still think our agreement with the St. Bernard Parish president is a proposal that takes into account flood protection measures for the parish and the needs of rebuilding the economy and industry in the area,” he said.