Friday, October 03, 2014


This is a New Republic feature on South Louisiana's coastal loss problem.. but, more to the point, it's about the particular political obstacles to ever fixing it.

The focus is on the proposed Mid-Barataria diversion near Myrtle Grove, the curious case of a coal terminal approved for construction on the same property, and on, perhaps the greatest obstruction of all, Billy Nungesser.
In 2012, the FBI launched a separate ethical investigation, but again Nungesser was not formally charged. More recently, Nungesser negotiated, on behalf of the parish, the contract to build the Port of Plaquemines on land near his home–land that he now intends to sell. “He put it where he owns land,” said Lawrence. “Now was that a coincidence, or did it happen for a reason?”

Turner is less equivocal. “It’s obvious he is using his office to enrich himself,” he alleged. “It’s all about money, not the coast. We only move forward if certain companies can profit. Any good that is done ends up being a byproduct, not the focus.” Nungesser insists that he is not privy to the business dealings of his blind trust. He does admit that his friends have profited during his terman inevitability, he says, given the parish’s small populationbut denies any wrongdoing.

Ronald Reagan, sitting astride a white horse, peers down from the wall of Nungesser’s office; next to the poster is a photograph of Reagan shaking a young Nungesser’s hand. (Nungesser’s father was Louisiana’s first Republican congressman since the Reconstruction and the state’s leading Republican kingmaker.) Three flags stand behind the desk: the American flag, the state flag, and the flag of Plaquemines.

I don’t think that large diversion will ever get built,” Nungesser began. Plaquemines, he said, was assembling its own coastal plan, in response to the state’s Master Planthe same one he voted to ratify as a member of the Coastal Authority. “There’s very few people that I’ve come across that are actually in favor of the Mid-Barataria diversion,” he told me, apart from “the scientists from California.” He did not specify which scientists he was referring to, but at a State of the Gulf conference held in March, three Louisiana State University (LSU) professors argued that “large-scale sediment diversions from the Mississippi River build the most land in return for the least financial investment,” by forcing sediment far deeper into the wetlands than otherwise possible. “The greatest challenge in instituting large-scale sediment diversions,” the LSU team concluded, “is political support.”
And perhaps not by coincidence... 
Louisiana is re-examining its ambitious plans for a major river sediment diversion project to build wetlands, based partly on costs that could top $1 billion, according to the state's No. 2 coastal official.

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project, planned for an area about 20 miles south of Belle Chasse, would amount to the first large-scale effort to build thousands of acres of land.

However, design work for the project has ground to a halt recently.

"Knowing what I know, I'm hoping diversions are part of the process," said Kyle Graham, Executive Director of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

While the project, part of the state's Coastal Master Plan, had been estimated to run about $300 million, early design work indicates a price of $500 million to $1.2 billion, depending on the methods used.

Graham said the state was now examining four possible sites, two on each bank of the river, including Mid-Barataria.

The TNR piece concludes with a few paragraphs on a Nungesser-specific version of Louisiana's familiar Faustian bargain with the fossil fuels industries.
Nungesser and his critics are not as far apart as it might seem. Plaquemines Parish has made an unholy bargain with the energy industry. But nobody makes such a bargain without a reason; you only do so if you believe you’ve been forsaken. This is the situation in which Plaquemines found itself in 2006. When the White House announced its plan to rebuild the levee system after Katrina, it excluded the lower part of Plaquemines; a Bush administration representative questioned whether including the parish would be “economically justifiable,” given that its total population stood at just 15,000 before the storm. The unsubtle implication of this statement, and others like it in the months that followed, was that much of southern Louisiana would be abandoned to the Gulf of Mexico, cut off from the rest of the country like a gangrenous digit.

The Sierra Club’s Devin Martin believes Nungesser is luring industry to Plaquemines in order to extort the federal government into paying for flood protection. “They can’t justify getting federal funding if it’s just to save poor people in a flood zone,” Martin told me. “They need industry, in at-risk places.” Under Nungesser, said Martin, “the parish has made an art out of how to acquire FEMA dollars.”

It’s true. Since Hurricane Katrina, Plaquemines Parish, with the support of Baton Rouge, has done everything possible to entice fossil-fuel corporations—the very same corporations that have imperiled the existence of the fragile coast—to expand their business on the lower Mississippi. Once situated, the energy plants serve as a blackmail note. When you have industry, in at-risk places, you need insurance. You need levees. And, most importantly, the federal government needs you.

Nungesser, while placing his emphasis differently, doesn’t disagree with this interpretation. “If I had my choice, would I choose this kind of industry?” he asked. “Maybe not. I don’t know. But I do know that we’re going to have another hurricane. I know people don’t want to leave, but it’s coming. With industry there, we have a fighting chance to save these communities.”
Except, of course, no communities are saved by such a strategy.  Communities are poisoned by these industries and then sold out to them entirely under the rationalization that maybe the feds will pay for levees to protect... industrial facilities which will be the only thing left there anyway. 

And even that won't hold back the sea forever.  Not if a coal plant can stop a diversion project. Eventually it will have to be abandoned.  But, in the meantime, the plan is to move the people off and let these heavy polluting companies squeeze what money they can out of the land before it sinks away.  It's a good enough deal for Billy Nungesser, anyway. But he's got some eroding marshland to sell.

1 comment:

Nolaresident said...

Great piece!