EPA, Biden administration blocks Yazoo Pumps Project, leaving Delta residents with yearly flood fights with no end in sight

Published 6:27 am Thursday, November 18, 2021

The South Mississippi Delta battles catastrophic floods almost every year, and once again, there is no end in sight for its residents.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced its decision to reject the 2020 Proposed Plan for the Yazoo Pumps Project on the grounds that the project is prohibited by EPA’s 2008 Clean Water Act Section 404(c) Final Determination.

The Mississippi Levee Board voiced its displeasure with the decision, stating that the Biden Administration was walking back on its own promises of “environmental justice.”

“For 80 years, our community has stood by as the Federal Government has played politics with the completion of the last pumping station on the Mississippi River, enduring devastating flooding in the South Mississippi Delta nearly every year as a consequence,” the statement read. “The January 2021 Record of Decision, at long last allowing the completion of the life-and livelihood-saving Yazoo Backwater Pumps, was a godsend after decades of flooding and two back-to-back years of the most egregious flooding events that took the homes of nearly 700 of our neighbors.

“94 percent of those homes were minority occupied and many of them remain uninhabitable today. Despite the Biden Administration and the EPA Administrator’s repeated insistence that environmental justice is a priority, including during a meeting this past Sunday where Administrator (Michael) Regan had the opportunity to hear directly from those still suffering from the 2019 flood, today, they chose to ignore the concerns of our community and determined that no pumps can be built in the Yazoo Backwater Area.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only Democrat in Mississippi’s congressional delegation, requested in an Aug. 30 letter that the EPA conduct a probe into the agency’s handling of the project under the Trump Administration. Although Thompson has publicly voiced support for the project in the past, in his letter, obtained by Energy and Environment News, he cited “serious issues” with the approval process.

Other state politicians also released statements decrying the decision, including U.S. Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves.

“This is an absolutely terrible day for the people who live in the Mississippi Delta and an even sadder day for the country when an agency like the EPA refuses to do the right thing for the people,” Hyde-Smith said. “I also give credit where credit is due. Congressman Bennie Thompson destroyed this project, taking one position in his district but working against it in Washington.

“This EPA action is an abuse of discretion and couldn’t be more arbitrary or capricious,” she said. “It also opens the door to a host of legal questions that should, and will likely, be challenged.”

Thompson released a rebuttal statement within an hour of Hyde-Smith’s statement, claiming Hyde-Smith’s accusations were false.

“Today, Sen. Hyde-Smith accused me of advocating for the Yazoo Pumps Project in Mississippi while not supporting it in Washington,” Thompson said. “The senator is wrong. I have gone on record in support of this project, and it is documented. Now, she has the burden to produce a list of the people I have spoken to against the pumps project.”

Wicker’s stance was one of “deep frustration,” he said, stating that the decision equates to environmental injustice.

“The federal government authorized the pumps 80 years ago, but the project has been held up by bureaucrats and red tape ever since,” Wicker said. “Today’s action means that roads will continue to be impassable, deer and other wildlife and plant life will die, hypoxia will kill fish, small businesses will shut down and residents will continue to be forced to leave their houses.”

South Mississippi Delta resident and advocate to finish the pumps Victoria Darden Garland said her thoughts were solely of disappointment as she received news of the EPA’s decision.

Garland, a past Vicksburg Post Woman of the Year honoree for her work advocating for residents affected by the 2019 Backwater Flood, said she is committed to seeing justice served for her fellow residents.

“I am deeply disappointed in this decision. This project is the only form of relief for the people from the South Mississippi Delta,” Garland said. “I do still remain hopeful that the Yazoo Backwater Project is needed, and we as a community will see that justice is served.”

A statement from Reeves cemented his support for the plight of those affected by the annual floods in the South Mississippi Delta, especially communities like Eagle Lake.

The floods have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage over the last 20 years alone.

“It seems like every day, the Biden Administration finds a new way to fail Mississippians,” Reeves said. “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.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District issued a statement as well, explaining that the office is aware of the recent turn of events but still committed to working with partners to see the project’s completion.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District is aware of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Nov. 17, 2021, letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works regarding the 2020 Plan for the Yazoo Pumps Project,” the statement read. “The Vicksburg District remains committed to the people affected by the continuous flooding in the Mississippi Delta. The Vicksburg District will continue to work with our federal, state and local partners on solutions for flooding in the Yazoo Backwater Area.”

“There is no project that better meets the goals of environmental justice as prioritized by the Biden Administration and Administrator Regan, and without pumps, there is no relief from annual devastating flooding,” the Mississippi Levee Board stated. “The lives and livelihoods of our neighbors, 62 percent of whom are people of color and 28 percent living below the poverty line, are our priority. The Levee Board will consider all options, including potential legal action, to advance this essential project.”