Will Yazoo pumps deliver “environmental justice” to the Mississippi Delta?
Senators Hyde-Smith and Wicker join other Mississippians who want the pumps finished as Congressman Thompson continues to waffle.
By Anne Summerhays
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in 2020 that the Yazoo Backwater area experienced significant flooding during nine of the ten previous years, and under the Trump Administration funding had been set aside to move the project forward following a 2019 flood that covered more than 500,000 acres and lasted several months.
As noted by the Vicksburg Post, the population impacted in this region is “approximately 70-percent minority households, and 30 percent of the residents live at or below the poverty line.”
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works said this week in a hearing in the U.S. Senate that the Biden administration considers the Yazoo Backwater Pumps an environmental justice issue.
The Flood Control Act of 1941 authorized the Yazoo Backwater Project to protect the Delta area of Mississippi from these increased stages. This project included a combination of levees, drainage structures, and pumps. The pumps are the last remaining unconstructed feature of the Yazoo Backwater Project.
In November, the EPA said that they recognize the disruptive impacts of flooding in the Yazoo Backwater Area on the day-to-day lives of Mississippians and the economy of the area, and the agency has heard first-hand from residents as well as local, state and federal elected officials about the urgent need for flood control.
However, the agency, now under the Biden Administration, explained that the 2020 Proposed Plan for the Yazoo Pumps Project is prohibited by EPA’s 2008 Clean Water Act Section 404(c) Final Determination, reversing course and siding with the liberal special interest environmentalist groups.
“EPA has determined that these impacts would result in unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas and wildlife. EPA continues to support the goal of providing improved flood protection for the residents of the Mississippi Delta; however, it believes that this vital objective can be accomplished consistent with ensuring effective protection for the area’s valuable natural resources,” the EPA had said on their decision.
On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing in which lawmakers reviewed the FY 2023 Army Corps budget.
During the hearing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to questions from Mississippi U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) regarding the Yazoo Backwater Area pumps saying, “pumps are still in the mix,” as the agency works to find new ways to help the area.
“I believe the Corps understands that the Yazoo Backwater Pump project is one of my very top priorities because I have seen the suffering that has happened in Mississippi,” Senator Hyde-Smith said following the hearing. “It’s clear to me that the Corps understands that a pumping station is the only way to bring meaningful flood protection to this part of Mississippi. I hope ongoing talks help us make that a reality sooner rather than later.”
During the hearing, Hyde-Smith asked Lieutenant General Scott A. Spellmon, Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, about the reality of being able to provide sufficient flood protection for the area’s residents, businesses, and environment without a pumping station to remove trapped floodwaters.
“We are confident in our science. We are confident in our engineering that the pump station can be operated in a manner that protects these communities that you mentioned, but also protects the 38,000 acres of wetland that are in that area,” Spellman said.
In November 2021, Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requesting they investigate the agency’s handling of project during the Trump Administration. This came after Thompson had advocated for and supported the project just months earlier in his own congressional district.
During a presentation to the Vicksburg Rotary Club in March, Thompson said that he has been on record supporting the pumps, but he is also on record saying they need to follow the law.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen. If the pumps don’t comply with the law, I’m not going to support them,” Thompson said about his discrepancy in positions.
According to the Vicksburg Post, Thompson said he would not support a multi-million project and said the solution does not have to only be pumps.
“I’m not going to support a $500 million-dollar project,” he added. “I think broad-minded people would say, ‘what are the other options here?’ I’m for flood control. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the pumps.
In July 2021, Mississippi U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R) held a hearing to examine the current issues adversely affecting environmental justice. He invited Tracy Harden, owner of Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, to testify on the need to control devastating flooding in southern Mississippi.
Wicker highlighted the repeated flooding in the South Mississippi Delta that has resulted from 80 years of delay in the completion of the Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project.
Senator Wicker asked Tracy Harden whether the pumps benefit or destroy wildlife and how the pumps would impact her community. Harden replied that with the pumps flooding would not be as high which would allow farmers to work in the fields and hire workers. If the farmers cannot work, then they cannot hire, she explained.
In June last year, a Biden administration official confirmed Senator Hyde-Smith’s assertion that the unfinished Yazoo Backwater Area pumps constitute an environmental injustice issue for Mississippians.
In an exchange between Senator Hyde-Smith and Jamie Pinkham, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, the Mississippi Senator recounted the hardships experienced by Yazoo Backwater residents.
When Hyde-Smith asked why completion of the new Proposed Plan for the pump would not promote environmental justice, Pinkham responded, “I’ve had a chance to look at the information you just shared, as well, in my briefings from the [Vicksburg] District. For the very reasons, this to me has an alignment with environmental justice, the facts you’ve laid out and the briefings I’ve received on it.”
However, there are many groups and individuals who support the EPA’s decision to overturn approval of Mississippi Yazoo Pumps project, all liberal special interests including American Rivers, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf.
“Let’s get one thing straight, the Yazoo Pumps are not an environmental justice project because it will not protect underserved communities from flooding,” said Louie Miller, State Director for the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club. “By the Corps’ own admission, 80% of the project benefits go to agribusiness by draining wetlands to intensify farming.”
Audubon took a similar stance.
“The Corps has repeatedly ignored these proven measures that would put money on the ground to these marginalized communities that need it the most, to help protect people’s lives, property, and livelihoods in the South Delta,” said Jill Mastrototaro, Mississippi Policy Director for Audubon Delta. “These are what real environmental justice solutions look like.”
The EPA has said that they look forward to an interagency process to leverage the expertise of a range of federal agencies to identify a durable solution for the Yazoo backwater and that they are committed to continue working with the Army Corps of Engineers and all partners to identify effective and enduring solutions that support communities in the Yazoo backwater area.