Federal lawsuit filed by Coast leaders regarding damages due to Bonnet Carré opening dismissed
BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - A portion of the lawsuit filed by Coast cities, counties and organizations in response to the 2019 opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway was dismissed in federal court this week.
Judge Louis Guirola Jr. ruled on Monday that the court had no authority to compel a new study from the Mississippi River Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding damages from the spillway opening.
Harrison and Hancock counties, the cities of Biloxi, D’Iberville, Waveland, Diamondhead, and Pass Christian, and the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association and Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, Inc. filed the lawsuit in late 2019 after the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway caused the devastating algal bloom in the Mississippi Sound.
The plaintiffs believed that the Corps and the River Commission did not provide the public with all of the information on the damage caused by opening the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act. However, Guirola ruled that the court did not have the authority to impose such a requirement.
“Without doubt, there have been recent, more frequent openings of the Bonnet Carré Spillway,” Guirola said. “Freshwater intrusion causes decreased salinity levels and results in adverse consequences to the Mississippi Sound and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. However, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. . . . The Court does not have authority to intervene and require the Corps to prepare a Supplemental EIS at this time.”
South Mississippi businesses and tourism overall were negatively affected by the 2019 opening of the spillway and the resulting algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico due to the freshwater intrusion, even leading to a fisheries disaster declaration by the U.S. Department of Commerce petitioned by Gov. Phil Bryant.
“We’re considering options after the Court’s order,” said Robert Wiygul, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.” In the meantime, the Corps should remember that it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. The Corps should respect the citizens of the Coast and prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement. Meanwhile, we will pursue our claim that the actions of the Federal Defendants violate their duty to avoid harm to fisheries habitat.”
The spillway was open for 115 days in 2019, marking the first time the Corps open the spillway twice in one year and the first time it was opened in back-to-back years. The spillway was opened to control flooding along the Mississippi River, forcing water into the Mississippi Sound and taking a toll on fisheries, the environment and tourism.
Multiple oyster reefs in the western Mississippi Sound were wiped out. Shrimp and fish were driven out of seasonal habitats. Bottom-dwelling sea life was affected in hundreds of square miles of water bottoms, including commercially valuable species such as crab. Bottlenose dolphin and endangered sea turtle corpses washed ashore in numbers not seen since the BP oil spill of 2010. These impacts hit fishermen hard but also spread throughout the businesses dependent on the seafood industry.
The river water released through the Bonnet Carré Spillway contained nitrate and phosphorus, causing algae blooms through the area. Contact with Gulf waters all along the Mississippi Coast was prohibited for months at a time. Beaches closed and families abandoned their summer vacations, causing tourism-related businesses to lose revenue. Local governments lost tax revenues and incurred uncompensated expenses as a result.
“The beach closures and negative publicity associated with the opening of the Bonnet Carré cost Coast tourism millions of dollars,” said Linda Hornsby, Executive Director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.
The economic damage to coastal fishing communities, local governments, and tourism-related businesses is still not fully known, but the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has estimated the financial impacts to fisheries alone as over $160 million.
Earlier this year, the Commission on Marine Resources met to finalize requests to the federal government for $21 million in Bonnet Carré disaster relief. The money will go toward improving conditions for oyster harvesting, exploring Bonnet Carré mitigation procedures as well as money directly into the pockets of fishermen and businesses affected by the spillway opening.
Department of Marine Resources Executive Director Joe Spraggins said the state has put together a five-year plan on how to spend that money. The plan went to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association. Once that plan comes back from NOAA, then the state will reveal it to the public.
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