Farmers, Corps at odds over sediment dumping in Missouri River

Jun 15, 2012
by DTN

A fight over sediment dumping in the Missouri River prompted a public hearing last Monday by Missouri’s Clean Water Commission to question the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) restoration program for the river.

The hearing in Jefferson City, MO, was in response to protests by farmers and state officials who say that the Corps’ plan to dump nearly a million cubic yards of dredged soil from its habitat restoration projects into the Missouri River is wasteful and displays a double standard in regulation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Col. Anthony Hofmann, commander of the Corps’ Kansas City District, was in attendance and spoke in defense of the Corps’ plan.

The Jameson Island habitat restoration project was initiated in 2006 and would cut a 30-acre side chute to restore shallow water habitat for the endangered pallid sturgeon, and the Corps issued a permit for itself to dump the resulting sediment. The project, located about 120 miles east of Kansas City, MO, would allow the Corps to meet the mandate issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (US- FWS) 2003 Biological Opinion that ordered the Corps to restore fish and wildlife habitat losses created over the course of 60 years by the 1945 Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project.

In 2007, Missouri’s Clean Water Commission ordered the Corps to halt the dumping of the dredged soil into the river. Protestors argued that the dumping of such phosphorus-rich soil was illegal for private parties, and was contributing to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, a large oxygen-starved region of water where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf.

In response, the Corps ordered a review of the issue by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The resulting report concluded that the soil released from the Corps’ habitat restoration projects would only account for 6 percent to 12 percent of the total sediment load in the Missouri River and would not contribute significantly to hypoxia in the Gulf. Based on these conclusions, the Corps drew up a project proposal, which detailed several alternative methods of creating the Jameson chute. The Corps’ preferred method would permit the Corps to release the dredged soil into the river. The only other alternative plan discussed at the hearing would require the Corps to dig up soil and redistribute it onto the surrounding floodplain.

Spreading the soil out and redistributing it garnered strong support by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, levee district representatives, farmers and agricultural groups such as the Missouri Corn Growers Association, the Missouri Soybean Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau. Representatives from these groups and more argued that the nitrogen and phosphorus-rich soil could be better used on land, and that the Jameson floodplain supplied ample acreage for redistribution. They worried that the high phosphorus content of the dredged soil will offset any gains in reduction of hypoxia in the Gulf, a phenomenon often blamed on agricultural producers.

Many also decried what they see as a double standard of regulation, since private residents and businesses are not allowed to dump sediment into the river, and Missouri residents pay a tax to fund state soil and water conservation efforts. Some comments called into question the very mission of the Missouri River Recovery program, arguing that USFWS has forced the Corps to spend more time and money on wildlife conservation to the detriment of flood control. Some levee district managers expressed concern that the chute’s construction would negatively affect nearby levees.

Proponents of the Corps’ plan to dump soil in the river included representatives of environmental organizations such as the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.

Members of these groups argued that the NAS report conclusively showed that the sediment load of all the Corps’ shallow water habitat projects wouldn’t be significant enough to worsen the hypoxia in the Gulf.

Some also argued that returning sediment to the river flow would reinvigorate wetlands to the south with its phosphorus load, and help restore the river’s historically high sediment load.

Proponents of the Corps’ position also argued that the residents and businesses that have been fined for dumping sediment were dumping dirt from contaminated construction sites, not the more natural alluvial sediment that makes up the soil in the Jameson chute area.

The Corps took advantage of the hearing to respond to concerns in person.

In his introduction, Hoffman denied any double standard in regard to the legality of the dumping. Section 404 of the CWA regulates the disposal of sediment into riverways and allows for permits to be issued for projects that have no alternative that would be less environmentally damaging. However, the Corps is responsible for evaluating and issuing such permits, even to itself. Hoffman defended the process, and said such permits are issued to private parties, local governments, and levee districts every year, most recently in Leavenworth, KS, and St. Joseph, MO.

After the hearing, Steven Fischer, the Corps’ senior program manager for the Missouri River Recovery Program, stressed that, in collaboration with the Coast Guard, the Corps monitors navigational problems and is alert to potential problems related to restoration projects. He also presented the Corps’ plan for monitoring water quality and habitat progress in the Jameson area before, during, and after chute construction.

Zach White, the Corps’ project manager for the Jameson project, added that removing the dredged soil could result in expensive, environmentally damaging trucking trips through the historic Arrow Point area, or by similarly costly barge trips. He stated that trucking the material could cost up to five times what the Corps planned to spend on the chute construction. Budget cutting is no small consideration for the Corps.

Last week, Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, R-MO, announced his intention to cut the Missouri River Recovery Program by $21 million, the amount the Corps spent last year on its habitat restoration projects. His amendment, adopted on a voice vote, is part of the Energy and Water Appropriations spending bill just approved by the House on June 6.

In response to the public controversy surrounding the Jameson project, the Corps has extended the public comment period on the project an additional 60 days. Written comments can be sent to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Corps until 5 p.m. on June 30, 2012. —Emily Garnett, DTN