U.S. Top Court’s Alito Refuses to Block Mississippi River Levee Demolition

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito denied Missouri’s bid for an order blocking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from blasting a Mississippi River levee and diverting water into state farmland to avert flooding upriver.

The high court’s associate justice last night declined to issue the injunction requested by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster earlier yesterday, according to Patricia McCabe Estrada, a spokeswoman for the highest U.S. court.

Heavy rainfall has swelled river levels to their highest since 1937, according to a statement issued by the Army Corps yesterday. The corps proposes to breach the Birds Point levee near Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri, diverting river water onto a 130,000-acre floodplain with about 100 homes.

The floodway is “designed to minimize damage and save lives from historic flood levels,” Army Corps Major General Michael Walsh said in the statement. “Its purpose is to lower flood stages and pressure on the entire system during major flood events.”

The U.S. estimates that breaching the levee may cause $314 million in damage within the floodway, compared with more than $1.7 billion in damage across swaths of Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky that may result if levees elsewhere on the system are overtopped or burst in uncontrolled flooding.

Previous Attempts

Koster sought and failed to win court orders blocking the plan from U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. in Cape Girardeau on April 29 and from a St. Louis-based U.S. Court of Appeals on April 30 before asking the Supreme Court justice to intervene yesterday.

“The water will rush over farmland, destroying homes and outbuildings, taking agricultural chemicals, petroleum tanks, diesel fuel and propane tanks stored and in use with it,” Koster said in his submission to Alito.

At each stage he was opposed by the Army Corps and by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Cairo, Illinois, a city of about 2,800 people near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and north of Birds Point, Missouri has been ordered evacuated by Mayor Judson Childs, according to media reports.

Pressure, Seepage

“Conditions are deteriorating rapidly in Cairo,” she told Alito in a brief filed yesterday opposing Missouri’s bid for his intervention. “As floodwaters rise, they create ‘hydrostatic pressure’ on the levees, which can lead first to seepage, and ultimately to the levee’s failure.”

Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Koster, didn’t immediately reply to an e-mailed seeking comment yesterday on Alito’s ruling. Robyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for Madigan, and Xochitl Hinojosa, a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman, also didn’t immediately reply to e-mailed requests for comment.

Alito is the Supreme Court justice designated to review petitions from the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa and four other states.

Walsh at about 3:45 p.m. local time yesterday ordered the pumping of an explosive compound into levee pipes. He hasn’t ordered the demolition, according to an Army Corps press statement.

Reversible Process

The process of loading the pipes, setting charges, clearing river traffic and ensuring evacuation of the target floodplain could take as long as 24 hours, Army Corps civil engineer Jon Korneliussen said in a telephone interview.

The pipe-loading process is reversible, he said.

“The Project Flood is upon us,” Walsh said yesterday in an Army Corps-issued statement. “This is the flood that engineers envisioned following the 1927 flood.”

That event led to legislation that gives the president of the Mississippi River Commission, currently Walsh, authority to operate the 35-mile long floodway when necessary to protect public safety.

“It is testing the system like never before,” the general said.

The appellate court case is State of Missouri v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 11-01937, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (St. Louis). The high court case is State of Missouri v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 10A1059, U.S. Supreme Court.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Harris in Chicago at aharris16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

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