Sunday, November 4, 2007

Port blasts Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act

Posted by jdegregorio
November 02, 2007 7:28PM
7:29 p.m., Friday, Times-Picayune

Advocates for the Port of New Orleans Friday blasted President Bush's veto of a water bill authorizing $160 million that could help the cargo hub recover from Hurricane Katrina.

The Water Resources Development Act, which included $23 billion for more than 900 projects, would have helped the port relocate businesses and facilities affected by the coming closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a manmade shortcut for ship traffic between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans.

"There has been absolutely nothing, no efforts made .¥.¥. to mitigate the harm and the damage that was done to the maritime industry here in New Orleans as a result of the decision to close the MR-GO," said Gary P. LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans. "We believe that the WRDA bill .¥.¥. represents the fiduciary duty of the federal government."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year recommended that the outlet be closed, largely due to the exorbitant cost of dredging the channel every year to allow deep-draft ship traffic. The waterway cuts through St. Bernard Parish and has been linked by some scientists to flooding there during Katrina, a contention the corps has challenged.

Many businesses dependent on the MR-GO have abandoned the Port of New Orleans because they will no longer be able to access their homes on the Industrial Canal, a waterway that links the Mississippi and MR-GO. The port has been struggling to move other businesses to new homes along the river. But money has been tight since Katrina battered many of the port's facilities, and officials say they need the water bill funds to stay afloat.

The bill authorizes an $85 million loan fund to help the Port of New Orleans relocate private facilities and $75 million to move public facilities. Congress would later have to appropriate those dollars, but cannot do so without first passing the water bill, a crucial bureaucratic step.

Congress typically passes such a bill every two years. But it has been nearly eight years since Congress pushed through the last water bill.

"It slowed our recovery efforts down significantly," LaGrange said of the water bill's delay.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in a phone conference Friday that she expects Congress to override Bush's veto as soon as next week. But observers in New Orleans said the veto shows the Bush administration's lack of commitment to rebuild New Orleans and the port in particular.

Poultry exporter New Orleans Cold Storage is waiting to relocate from the Industrial Canal to a new site on the river. The company needs deep-draft ships to haul its frozen chicken parts and, since Katrina, has had to truck its goods to the water for shipping.

Executive Vice President Mark E. Blanchard said his company was hoping to tap into some of the loan funds promised in the water bill.

"The Louisiana Legislature helped us, but it is not enough, and it doesn't take care of the huge financial losses that we've incurred since the hurricane because of the federal government's failure to either dredge the MR-GO or relocate us," Blanchard said. "The WRDA bill had the support of the entire Louisiana delegation, and we're just hopeful that congress will override the president's veto."

While New Orleans Cold Storage plays the waiting game, other companies are fleeing the Port of New Orleans. Earlier this month, Bollinger Shipyards said that it would shutter its ship repair yards on the Industrial Canal and move them to locations in Morgan City and Sulphur.

In August, Southern Scrap Material Co. said it planned by year's end to move its shipbreaking operations from the Industrial Canal and was considering moving the rest of its business as well.

Last year, International Shipholding Corp. announced that it would move its CG Railway business from the Industrial Canal to Mobile, Ala.

The water bill has more than just money for the Port of New Orleans.. It could also help jumpstart a now-stalled project to widen the lock system that allows ships to move between the river and the Industrial Canal. The 1920s-era lock cannot accommodate traffic from larger, modern vessels, a fact that has exacerbated the MR-GO closure.

The bill requires the Army Corps to complete by July 1 an environmental study needed to jump-start construction on the project. A federal judge ruled last year that the corps would have to stop work on the $800 million project until it further studied the impact of dredging and disposing of sediment for the project.

Sen. Landrieu said Bush's veto flies in the face of promises his administration made to help Louisiana recover from Katrina. Just last week, Gulf Coast recovery chief Donald Powell called New Orleans a "bright, shining star" that is integral to New Orleans' future economic health. His words came at a trade and transportation conference being held in the city's Morial Convention Center.

"The rhetoric does not match the reality of the situation," she said. 

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