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EPA reverses Trump-era decision to allow Yazoo Pumps

Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 12:25 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2021 at 2:12 PM CST
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (WLBT) - The Trump-era approval of the Yazoo Pumps has been overturned.

Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restored the Clean Water Act veto of the project, which would have prevented backwater flooding in the Mississippi Delta.

Meanwhile, a war of words has erupted between two members of the state’s Washington delegation, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and Rep. Bennie Thompson.

Smith claims Thompson is responsible for destroying the project, while Thompson claims that he’s gone on record supporting the proposal and that Hyde-Smith “is not telling the truth.”

The decision has also sparked an outcry from other state and federal leaders, including Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, Agricultural Commissioner Andy Gibson, Gov. Tate Reeves, the Mississippi Levee Board, and Sen. Roger Wicker, all of whom oppose the decision.

EPA handed down its decision in a 33-page letter. While shutting down the plan, the agency says it is “concerned about the serious impacts from flooding on people and the economy of the Lower Mississippi Delta (and that it) stands ready to work with the corps and other stakeholders in the region to find a path forward that addresses flooding concerns in an environmentally protective manner.”

The corps is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which drew up the controversial project.

The decision nullifies the EPA’s decision to allow the pumps in the final days of the Trump presidency and is being lauded by environmental groups, like Earthjustice, the Audubon Society, and the Mississippi Sierra Club.

“EPA’s decision is a powerful affirmation that science and law, not politics, ultimately prevail,” said Stu Gillespie Earthjustice attorney. “EPA’s decision upholds bedrock environmental laws and restores crucial safeguards for some of the nation’s richest wetlands.”

The pumps were designed to keep backwater levels stable during flood events, keeping it off of thousands of acres of farmland where, in recent years, millions of dollars in crops have been lost.

The project was opposed by environmental groups because of the impact it would have had on Delta wetlands.

Reeves vowed to fight the decision and slammed the Biden administration over the decision in a statement.

According to a copy of the EPA’s decision, the plan would have led to the construction of a 14,000-cubic-feet-per-second pumping station in the deer creek area.

The pumps would be designed to pull water out of the wetlands and pump it into the Yazoo River, which would then carry it to the Mississippi River. The devices would turn on once the water in those areas reached a certain height.

Construction would have impacted 193.52 acres of wetlands, while the operation of the plant would impact 38,774 acres, according to corps’ estimates.

The EPA, though, says the pumps would impact as much as 216,000 acres of wetlands.

The agency also claims that the corps underestimated the project’s impact on fish and other aquatic organisms and that there was no mitigation plan “that demonstrates the impacts to wetlands, fish, and wildlife can be mitigated at an acceptable level.”

Any time wetlands are impacted, mitigation is required. In other words, if wetlands are destroyed, new wetlands must be built somewhere else.

Andrew Whitehurst, with Health Gulf, said pulling water out of the backwater area would ultimately change the characteristics of the wetlands.

“Dry them out, in other words, to different degrees to where they would be less suitable and change from wetlands to other kinds of plant communities,” he said.

The plans were approved with much fanfare in January, with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Gov. Tate Reeves, and other state and federal officials announcing the project had been given the green light.

In February, Earthjustice threatened a lawsuit on behalf of several environmental groups, citing the impact the pumps would have on pondberries, an endangered plant species found in the area.

Louie Miller, state director of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club, says that the pumps were designed to benefit agribusiness, not communities and that 83 percent of the area flooded during the 2019 Yazoo backwater flood would still have been underwater.

“The pumps are not designed to protect communities from flooding but benefit agribusiness,” he said. “Federal focus needs to be getting money on the ground to the people who need it the most.”

The EPA initially vetoed the pumps in 2008 under then-President George W. Bush. The corps of engineers drew up a second plan to get around that veto. That plan was approved in January under President Donald Trump.

While environmental leaders applaud the decision, others are blasting the EPA for stopping the effort.

“This is an absolutely terrible day for the people who live in the Mississippi Delta and an even sadder day for the country when an agency like the EPA refuses to do the right thing for the people,” said Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. “I also give credit where credit is due. Congressman Bennie Thompson destroyed this project, taking one position in his district but working against it in Washington.”

Hyde-Smith didn’t say how Thompson killed the project.

Thompson says Hyde-Smith is wrong and needs to back up her claims with proof.

“I have gone on record in support of this project and it is documented,” he said in a statement. “Now, she has the burden to produce a list of the people I have spoken to against the pumps project. If she cannot produce the list, it is clear she is not telling the truth.”

Thompson previously has come out in support of the pumps, including in a Feb. 2020 news release, saying that “this project is of critical importance for the second Congressional district of Mississippi.”

The news release went on to cite the 2019 floods, which led to over 500,000 acres of land being submerged for months. His office also said that $377 million in damages had occurred in the Yazoo area between 2008 and 2018 because of backwater flooding.

In August, Thompson sent a letter to current EPA Administrator Michael Regan asking that his office “conduct an immediate and comprehensive review” of the process that led to the approval of the project and to hold any current or previous staff accountable for violating the law or ignoring “critical scientific evidence” related to the project.

“I trust your office will review all supporting EPA documents that were used in the reversal of the EPA’s previously issued veto of the Yazoo Pumps and take all appropriate actions necessary,” he wrote. “All administrative and regulatory processes must be above reproach in terms of both science and the rule of law.”

The EPA’s veto seems to address Thompson’s concerns, saying that the Trump EPA ”did not prepare any supporting documentation or analysis. And, unlike this reconsideration decision... does not reflect a thorough review of EPA’s administrative record for the 2008 (veto),” or the environmental reports for the 2007 and the 2020 corps plans.

Hyde-Smith didn’t address whether EPA violated the law, but did blast the federal regulatory agency for giving Mississippians “empty platitudes... on a ‘path forward’ and environmental justice.”

Said the senator, “We also do not need our own working against a project that will ultimately protect lives and the environment from repeated catastrophic flooding.”

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