Federal agency questions post-Katrina water systems

BILOXI, MS (AP) - Members of the Harrison County Utility Authority knew a federal report was about to be released pertaining to 67 wastewater treatment facilities approved since Hurricane Katrina.  Today, that report came out.

The 46 page audit report from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General was dated December 30.  It says Mississippi officials accepted unsupported population growth estimates in developing a plan to use $653 million in federal Hurricane Katrina recovery money for water and wastewater facilities, including some that may not be needed.

What auditors found was the state of Mississippi "did not fully implement adequate controls and procedures to ensure that the need for and capacity of water and wastewater treatment facilities constructed addressed needs create by Hurricane Katrina or supported economic development".  Auditors believe some of the 67 wastewater facilities planned or built after the 2005 hurricane "may not have been needed."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Inspector General also questioned appraisals used to buy private land.

In June 2012, the Associated Press reported on concerns raised by residents and officials concerning the population estimates and the use of eminent domain to acquire private land for projects that may not be needed for years, if ever.

Among other things, the OIG report recommends that Mississippi implement procedures to ensure that "in the future the need and size of projects are determined and supported by objective and relevant population data."

According to the report, the state used population projections that were significantly higher than other reports.  One report projected population increases in the six coastal counties of 25% over 20 years.  The report was based on rising construction costs and higher insurance rates which limited whether hurricane victims would rebuild.

But, OIG auditors noted just a month later, the state used a different report to apply for grant money.  That report projected a population growth of 64%.

One other finding by the federal auditors focused on the River Hills Wastewater Treatment Facility off Old Highway 49 in Harrison County.  The state called that project critical, so it received emergency funds of almost $10 million to build it.  Yet, in late 2013, nearly seven years after HUD approved the emergency project, River Hills remains off line.  And, the report says, "The State had not confirmed how the emergency need was being met."

Based on that finding, the OIG recommends the State "fully implement controls and procedures to ensure that in the future projects are properly identified as emergency projects and when designations are made, the projects are constructed and implemented pursuant to the intent of that designation."

To read a copy of the OIG report, click here.  That link will take you to the HUD findings.

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