Corps halts levee break prep as states argue

CAPE GIRARDEAU (AP) — A federal judge hearing arguments over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to intentionally break a Mississippi River levee left the bench Thursday without making a ruling but indicated he was reluctant to get in the agency’s way.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. heard arguments from attorneys for the state of Missouri and the Army Corps of Engineers on the corps’ proposal to use explosives to blow a 2-mile-wide hole through the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri. The corps says breaking the levee would ease waters rising around the upstream town of Cairo, Ill., near the confluence of the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

The corps, however, halted its preparation for the break on Thursday, saying it needed until the weekend to assess whether a sustained crest of the Mississippi 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 and create extra pressure on the wall.

“It’s going to be touch and go for a while,” Pogue said. “We’re all holding our breath.”

Missouri filed a lawsuit and requested a temporary restraining order to block the detonation, triggering Thursday’s hearing.

It wasn’t clear when Limbaugh would rule, despite his vow at the beginning of the more than five-hour hearing to expedite a decision given the circumstances.

Missouri assistant attorney general Jack McManus argued the break would trigger a rush of water that would ruin prime farmland, flood about 90 homes and displace 200 people.

But in questioning McManus near the end of the hearing, Limbaugh indicated a reluctance to intervene, citing a previous federal appellate court ruling that the corps has “unreviewable” discretion to take such action.

“I’m really concerned about my ability to get involved,” Limbaugh said.

He 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 relief valve the agency could use during dire flooding events.

McManus also claimed the torrent of water would violate state clean water laws by sweeping away pesticides, fertilizer, diesel fuel and other toxins that could eventually reach other waterways.

Edward Passarelli, an attorney with the U.S. attorney’s office in St. Louis representing the corps, told Limbaugh, “This is a flood caused by Mother Nature, and it’s the forces of nature causing the corps to react to it.”

The state of Illinois and the town of Cairo favor the move, arguing the well-being of Cairo’s 2,800 residents outweighs farmland that would be swallowed up in the rush.

That’s a tough sell to Missouri farmers, said McManus, who added that water from the break would destroy half of Mississippi County’s cropland and “treat the residents there as squatters” who are unlikely to get compensation from the government or insurers because the break was man-made.

Passarelli told Limbaugh that Congress has given the corps the authority to take such drastic steps when it “deems it absolutely essential.”

“Here we’ve got an important responsibility to protect the lives and the property of people in many states,” Passarelli said.

Cairo hasn’t seen water this high since 1937, when the Ohio River reached a record 59.5 feet at the town. Whether the flood wall could survive a sustained crest of more than 60 feet is at the heart of the corps’ dilemma.

Before halting work Thursday, corps crews had started laying the groundwork for using explosives to create a roughly 2-mile-wide hole in the levee. The explosives are a liquid mix of sodium perchlorate — often used to make ammunition — and aluminum powder. Crews would pump the slurry into pipes embedded into the levee in 1,000-foot lengths — each separated by 60-foot gaps — and accessible through manhole-like holes known as “fuse plugs” 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.

Lawyers for the state of Kentucky also intervened Thursday, saying the detonation plan would prevent catastrophic flooding in the nearby city of Hickman.

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