State Attorney General Jim Hood said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that he would as a last resort sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over widespread environmental damage and aquatic deaths in the Mississippi Sound caused by the longest release in history of Mississippi River water from the Bonnet Carré Spillway.
The Louisiana spillway has — for the first time since it was completed in 1931 — been opened twice in one year and in back-to-back years. Openings in February and May have spewed more than 6 trillion gallons of river water through the spillway that empties into Lake Pontchartrain and then the Sound.
The water is polluted with chemical-laden sediment that contributes to an oxygen-deprived dead zone and also reduces salinity to intolerable levels for aquatic life such as oysters and dolphins.
Hood and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann already are suing the Corps over school land lost in three southwestern Mississippi counties when the Corps built a structure in the 1950s to prevent the river from flooding New Orleans and Baton Rouge, swamping the school land instead.
Hood called another lawsuit a “last resort.”
“I’d rather have a conversation with them,” he said. The attorney general, Hosemann and Joe Spraggins, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, will be meeting June 24 with Maj. General Richard G. Kaiser, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division.
Kaiser decides whether to open the spillway because he also heads the Mississippi River Commission, which recommends policy, flood control and other aspects of river work.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to reach some agreement,” Hood said, “ . . . but we want to make them be prepared to pay reparations for the damages that this freshwater is causing in our Mississippi Sound for the dolphins, the impacts on tourism and our seafood industry.”
Fittingly, Hood held his news conference in the courtyard of the iconic Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, one of the many Coast establishments where seafood is a staple.
The spillway is still open, with no firm date for closure. Matt Roe, a spokesman for the Corps New Orleans District that operates the spillway, told the Sun Herald on Thursday, “The long range forecast is looking favorable, but we do not have a closing date yet.”
In addition to reparations for damages, Hood wants the Corps to study the environmental impacts of the spillway openings on the Mississippi Sound because none has been done. He said he realizes the study would take several years.
Hood says he is encouraged that state and local political leaders are working together on this issue. A delegation of local elected officials, led by Pascagoula Mayor Dane Maxwell, met Wednesday at the White House with the Corps’ assistant secretary over floodwater basins.
Maxwell served as President Trump’s Mississippi campaign manager in 2016 and plans to campaign for him again. He said that he wants to take the issue to Trump only after he has more information compiled about damages and the issues Mississippi is facing from the spillway.
“My fear is that we’ll lose our ability to fish this water and make a living off seafood,” Maxwell said. “It’s a big economic development impact to us.
“We spend millions of dollars every year on tourism. The whole Gulf makes their living off tourism.
“It certainly affects tourism, economic development, jobs here on the Coast. It affects a lot of people.”