While the Levee Waits

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to blast open a Mississippi River levee rests with a federal judge who voiced reluctance to block it despite Missouri's claims the breach would wreak economic and environmental havoc on an already struggling part of the state.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr., after a five-hour hearing Thursday over Missouri's bid to halt the possible intentional levee break, deferred making an immediate ruling, though he noted he would try to expedite a resolution as rain-swollen inland rivers rise further.

At issue is the corps' proposal to use explosives to blow a 2-mile-wide hole through the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri's Mississippi County, arguably to ease waters rising around the upstream town of Cairo, Ill., near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

The corps halted its preparation for the break Thursday, saying it needed until the weekend to assess whether a sustained crest of the Ohio at Cairo would demand the extraordinary step.

The river's crest at the Cairo flood wall could reach 60.3 feet — nearly a foot above its record high — as early as Sunday, corps spokesman Jim Pogue said. The wall protects the town up to 64 feet, but there's concern the crest could last up to five days, putting extra pressure on it.

Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee all want the corps to move forward with the plan. Missouri's lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to block the detonation.

John McManus, an assistant Missouri attorney general, argued the break would unleash a torrent of water that would carve a channel through prime farmland, flood about 90 homes and displace 200 people. The rush of water also stood to cause an environmental catastrophe, sweeping away everything from fertilizer to diesel fuel, propane tanks, pesticides and other toxins, McManus and some of the four witnesses who testified for the state suggested.

Attorneys for the corps and the state of Illinois countered that the farmers already have land that's flooded and have been given ample notice to clear their properties of anything toxic. The state of Illinois and the town of Cairo argue the well-being of Cairo's 2,800 residents outweighs farmland that would be swallowed up by the rush.

Edward Passarelli, a Justice Department attorney representing the corps, said Congress has given the agency broad discretion in operating floodways such as the Birds Point levee. A St. Louis-based federal appellate court has affirmed that authority and found it "unreviewable," deferring to the corps' expertise in urgent flood-control decisions, Passarelli said.

"This is a flood caused by Mother Nature, and it's the forces of nature causing the corps to react to it," he said. "Here we've got an important responsibility to protect the lives and the property of people in many states."

Limbaugh also cited that higher court ruling. "I'm really concerned about my ability to get involved," he said.

The judge also questioned whether potentially affected farmers had signed or sold away their rights to block the breach by giving the corps easements to the property over the years for use as a potential relief valve during dire flooding.

Kentucky argues that failure to breach the levee could threaten 8,000 residents of Hickman. Federal lawmakers from Tennessee also have urged the corps to make the breach happen to avert more significant flooding in that state.

Corps crews this week started laying the groundwork for using a liquid mix of explosives that would be pumped into pipes embedded into the levee and accessible through manhole-like holes that are cut into the embankment. The corps would use blasting caps with C-4 plastic explosives to set off the slurry, fracturing the levee's top end enough that it would weaken, allowing the river to bust through.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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