The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is good at making promises they have no intention of keeping. When they’re outnumbered in hostile, community-meeting territory, they say things like:
“Nothing has been decided. We’re here because we want to hear from you — the community.”
“Sure, we’ll send you those documents. First thing in the morning.”
And the real crowd pleaser:
“We’ll build levees, and they will hold.”
When we know damn well they won’t.
At recent community meetings in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower and Upper 9th wards, the Army Corps’ New Orleans Division rolled out their latest disaster-to-be: a scheme to replace the lock in the 94-year-old Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, commonly known as the Industrial Canal.
Read the Army Corps’ current plan as well as decades of previous iterations that have been shot down by the courts here.
The 13-plus year, billion-dollar boondoggle would replace the existing lock with a shiny new shallow-draft lock north of Claiborne Avenue, nearly a mile into the city’s East Bank. To do so, the Army Corps will need to dynamite the existing 250,000-ton lock — which is close to the Mississippi River at St. Claude Avenue — and dredge nearly a century of heavy metals and miscellaneous toxins from the 30-foot-deep canal. But before they start dynamiting and dredging, they will need to relocate nearby residents. All relocations will be “temporary.” Only long enough to make way for a “temporary” bridge to replace the one at St. Claude.
They will build levees — the BEST Levees! — around the construction site to protect the surrounding communities from flooding.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Army Corps would have us believe they hear the community’s concerns — about noise, toxins, impeded traffic, relocation, fear of flooding and disrupted neighborhoods.
A recent community meeting drew hundreds of Upper and Lower 9th Ward residents to St. Mary of the Angels Church. When the Rev. Willie Calhoun asked those who opposed the new lock project to stand, every person in attendance rose as one.
“By making people vote with their feet,” New Orleans District commander and district engineer Col. Michael Clancy told The Times-Picayune, “we got the message.”
I doubt it.
For nearly two months, I and others have emailed multiple Army Corps officials, requesting public documents they promised to provide us – prior to the end of their “public comment period.”
Our requests for additional comment cards to pass out to folks unable to attend their meetings?
Our requests for transcripts from their meetings?
And our Freedom of Information Act request from 11 Lower 9th Ward community groups?
If the Corps ignores our repeated requests for public documents – documents they promise us at community meetings – why should we believe their promises to consider our concerns?
We shouldn’t. Because they won’t. Unless, of course, we apply enough pressure.
This is why the 11 Lower 9th Ward community organizations partnered to submit paperwork requesting documents rightfully available to us under the federal Freedom of Information Act. We hand-delivered the request to Army Corps officials and read sections into the public record during their March 7 meeting at Dr. King Charter School. We followed up the next morning by emailing the request to Army Corps officials as well as our public representatives and the media.
The submission requests six months of logbooks, correspondence around the proposed project and the methodology used by the Army Corps to calculate vessel wait/delay times in the canal, a crucial metric for determining whether the project makes sense. The Army Corps argues that vessels wait on average 16 hours to pass through the existing lock. They maintain that’s a major burden not only on the shipping industry but on the entire American economy. Yet they provide no documentation to support their claims.
Read our Freedom of Information Act request here.
At the March 30 meeting at St. Mary of the Angels, we again provided the Army Corps with hard copies of our request for public records and announced that we had yet to receive a confirmation of receipt.
Col. Clancy said, “I am recognizing receipt now.” He went on to say: “I think everything said here should and will be made available to the public.” We replied, “According to the Justice Department, federal departments have 20 working days to reply in writing to Freedom of Information Act requests. Today is Day 17.”
Read the Army Corps’ Freedom of Information Act policies here.
Day 20 came and went. Several days later, after more than a month of broken promises and blatant evasion during the Army Corps’ officially designated “public comment period,” I pecked the following email to several Army Corps officials, including Col. Clancy:
“Another day. Another delay. And another ignored email.
Honestly, what does it take for someone — anyone — at the Corps to respond to requests from the public? Requests that each of you promised to honor in your recent community meetings.”
That got a response. Kinda.
The next morning, an official at the Army Corps emailed me an apology for the Corps’ failure to respond sooner and an explanation that our requests had been routed to Senior Paralegal/FOIA Coordinator, Frederick Wallace on March 8 and 15.
After multiple follow-up emails with Wallace, on April 18 he provided lock logs for longer than the 180 days requested because the lock was closed for repairs much of the past six months. A nice gesture, but the Corps’ log report is dated March 23. We didn’t receive these logs until April 18 — nearly six weeks after we first requested them and two weeks after the Corps’ so-called public-comment period closed.
Wallace argues that the Army Corps can not honor our request for all correspondence regarding delays in the canal during the requested 180-day period because the request is “too broad and too vague.”
Fair enough. We will amend the request as advised and resubmit.
The Army Corps provided transcripts to one of their three community meetings. We requested transcripts for all three. They claim that they have not received transcripts from the court reporter for their Feb. 23 meeting in St. Bernard Parish or their March 30 meeting in the Upper 9th Ward. Our request for these documents has been “denied based on a ‘no records’ determination.” But not to fret, the Army Corps assures us they will “publish these transcripts on [their] website as soon as possible.”
Let me see if I can wrap my head around this: The Corps does not have transcripts from a Feb. 23 meeting, but they do from a March 7 meeting. The March 7 meeting just so happens to be the meeting that occurred in the Lower 9th Ward. And Corps officials told me on multiple occasions that it only takes “a few days” to receive the transcripts from the court reporter.
Are they trying to appease us by sharing only the transcripts from the Lower 9th Ward meeting? Do they think we will forget about the transcripts from the other community meetings and stop requesting them? Time will tell.
Read the transcripts here.
Regarding our request for the Army Corps’ methodology for calculating vessel wait/delay times in the canal, Wallace directs us to a one-sentence footnote on page 50 (more readily found at page 3.1) of the Army Corps’ Draft General Reevaluation Report and Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the project, which states:
Transit through a lock includes entering the queue, cutting a tow, if necessary, to lock through the existing lock, locking through the structure and reassemble of a cut tow upon exiting the lock.
This report has been publicly available on the Army Corps’ website since January.
I and every other Lower 9th Ward community member who partnered to submit our requests have read the report, closely. This one-sentence footnote hardly represents a methodology. Furthermore, the alleged vessel delays in the canal are the sole basis for the Army Corps’ argument that their highly complicated and expensive Lock Replacement Project is needed for the good of the country. Calling this footnote a methodology is simply insulting. It implies that we, too, are little more than a footnote in the Army Corps’ Grand Plans.
The Army Corps’ makes no reference to our follow-up request dated March 14 for all contracts and requests for proposals for construction of the proposed Lock Replacement Project. They simply ignore it.
The Army Corps’ public comment period for the proposed Lock Replacement Project ended April 7. We were unable to include public comments informed by review of these documents because our multiple requests for this documentation went unfulfilled.
However, according to federal law, we have 90 days from the date of the Army Corps’ response to appeal.
This is only the beginning of what will likely be a long fight. Still ahead: several in-house reviews and updates slated through spring 2018. The Army Corps is scheduled to submit its final report to Congress for approval on June 22, 2018.
We will continue to press the Army Corps for public documents throughout this process. We are not a footnote, and we will not be ignored.
Folks opposed to the Army Corps’ Lock Replacement Project are encouraged to sign the petition by Citizens Against Widening the Industrial Canal. The petition can be accessed here.
Residents, partners and friends will hold a March Against the Industrial Canal Lock Expansion Project on Saturday, April 29 from 10 a.m. – noon. The march will start at St. Claude and Forstall in the Lower 9th Ward. See additional information here.
Please join us in our continued effort to obtain public documents from the Army Corps. New Orleans District officials can be reached here:
Commander Col. Clancy: email@example.com
Senior Paralegal/FOIA Coordinator Frederick W. Wallace: Frederick.W.Wallace@usace.army.mil
Ariane Wiltse has been a Holy Cross resident since June 2006 and homeowner since 2007. She is active in several Lower 9th Ward community organizations. The comments and opinions expressed in this letter are hers alone and should not be construed as an official response or position from the Lower 9th Ward community. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.