The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that a 2008 veto against the proposed Yazoo Pumps project does, in fact, still stand.
The move came after previous leaders at the EPA, headed by Trump appointee Andrew Wheeler, decided last November that new changes to the project proposal exempted it from the 2008 veto that was made during the Bush administration.
“We must ensure that protecting people, preserving natural systems, and supporting agriculture are all part of the solution,” said current EPA Administrator Michael Regan, a Biden appointee who took over the agency earlier this year and visited the Yazoo Backwater area earlier this week. “EPA understands the urgency and is ready to work with its federal partners and local stakeholders on a transparent process to find a solution to flooding in the Yazoo backwater area that is both durable and environmentally protective.”
The EPA initially vetoed the project in 2008 under the Clean Water Act because of anticipated damages that the pumps would cause to tens of thousands of acres of wetlands in the South Delta, an area conservationists call some of the most valuable habitat in the country, especially for migratory birds. The area’s wetlands also absorb surrounding water, serving as natural flood protection.
A few hours after the EPA’s announced decision, Gov. Tate Reeves blasted President Biden over the change.
“It seems like every day, the Biden Administration finds a new way to fail Mississippians,” Reeves said in a statement. “The Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency realized the importance of protecting the Mississippi Delta and its residents when they allowed this project to proceed. Instead, President Biden is choosing to put radical ‘environmentalists’ ahead of human lives and livelihoods. My administration will fight this decision and stop at nothing until this project gets done.”
Over several years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collected hydrological data to understand whether pumping during the flood season would leave enough water to sustain the wetlands. With that research, the Corps argued that pumping during the spring wouldn’t harm the ecology because the wetlands receive sufficient rainfall during the winter.
After the Corps submitted that data with a new proposal in 2020, the EPA decided that the 2008 veto no longer applied to the project. Yet, as one expert told Mississippi Today, the proposal still lacked modeling of what would occur in the wetlands with the pumps running.
The South Delta has seen an increase in springtime flooding over the last decade, including record-setting inundation in 2019. The ensuing damages to homes and farmland led a group of local flood victims and prominent Mississippi leadership, including Reeves, former Gov. Phil Bryant, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Sen. Roger Wicker and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann to push the EPA for an appeal of the 2008 decision.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only congressional Democrat and who represents the South Delta and previously expressed cautious support for the pumps, recently asked the EPA to investigate the veto revocation after reports that the agency ignored its own staff’s warnings around ecological damages.
Opponents of the project point to cheaper alternatives for the pumps — which would likely cost over $300 million, although the Corps hasn’t released an updated estimate — such as voluntary buyouts and elevating structures.
Earlier this year, a coalition of conservation groups represented by non-profit Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against both the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act, arguing the project would threaten the habitats for over 400 species including the endangered pondberry.
A release from the coalition said last year’s decision was the first time the EPA had revoked a veto.
Correction 11/19/21: A previous version of this story reported the 2008 veto was made during the Obama administration. It was made during the Bush administration.