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Barge back up

Barge traffic was stalled along the Mississippi River south of the Chain of Rocks Bridge on Wednesday (Sept. 19, 2012) as the Army Corps of Engineers scrambles to repair part of Lock 27 north of Venice that has caused a massive backup in commercial boats. Photo by Joel Currier, jcurrier@post-dispatch.com

Environmental groups are asking a federal judge to halt several projects planned by the Army Corps of Engineers in the portion of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and the Ohio River.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in East St. Louis, six environmental groups are seeking to stop four projects the corps says are needed to reduce dredging costs and keep the river navigable.

One of the projects is on St. Louis’ riverfront, and the others are between the Missouri and Ohio rivers under the jurisdiction of the corps’ St. Louis district.

The structures used in those projects have been linked to increased flood heights by some academics, and the groups filing the suit say the corps has not taken new studies and information into account when preparing impact studies for projects. They also are seeking more comprehensive studies of the environmental impact corps activities have had on the river over the decades.

“There are definitely adverse environmental impacts but there are huge public safety impacts,” said Melissa Samet, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs.

The corps has conducted its own studies on flooding and determined there is no link between flood heights and the dikes, chevrons and other structures it builds to direct the river’s flow and keep it deep enough for barge traffic.

However, a December 2011 review by the federal Government Accountability Office noted “significant professional disagreement remains” over whether the river structures increase flooding. The GAO recommended the corps conduct further studies, including an external, independent review.

The groups filing suit, which also include the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, say the corps is moving forward with the projects despite an earlier pledge to perform a new environmental study on its activities in the river.

They’re asking a judge to order it to expand the scope of its studies and look at the entirety of its activities on the Mississippi River.

“The corps needs to step back and study the so-called cumulative impacts of its actions instead of looking at what it’s doing piecemeal,” said Bruce Morrison, general counsel of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, an affiliate of the Habitat Alliance.

A corps spokeswoman in St. Louis said it hasn’t yet reviewed the suit and couldn’t comment on it.

The corps has said newer designs for its river control projects can help wildlife habitat by slowing the river near the bank so sediment can build up and create small islands and channels along the shore.

The Wildlife Federation’s Samet said it hasn’t demonstrated that benefit to the group’s satisfaction.

“While the corps claims they have some kind of ecological benefit, the actual purpose is to reduce dredging costs,” she said.

The lawsuit comes as the corps’ St. Louis district gears up for several projects near St. Louis and south to the Ohio River.

Across from south St. Louis, the corps plans new bank stabilization on the Illinois bank and a new dike. The corps says it won’t exceed $5 million and will reduce the need for dredging in the area, which costs it roughly $650,000 a year.

It plans as much as $5 million worth of projects near the Ohio River’s confluence with the Mississippi that would reduce its annual $655,000 dredging bill there. It is also in the early stages of other projects near Cape Girardeau, Mo.

The groups filing the suit want the corps to stop the projects until it finishes a broader review of its activities.

“All we are saying is we do not want more structures going into the river until the corps makes a comprehensive assessment that there are not better ways to do this,” Samet said.

Jacob Barker is a business reporter for the Post-Dispatch. 314-340-8291