The Army Corps has refused to release documents that explain key decisions, delays and plans related to West Fork mouth bar dredging, and a potential placement area for the spoils. At issue are the Corps’ decisions to dredge only 500,000 cubic yards from the area of the mouth bar and to delay approval of the City’s proposed placement area for long-term dredging.
As a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request related to these decisions, I also learned that the Corps:
- Is dredging near the mouth bar without a plan
- Is almost done with the mouth bar project and hopes to have a plan before it finishes
- Has repeatedly delayed a decision on a new placement area that could have saved millions of tax dollars.
Meanwhile, the Corps continues sending sediment to a mine that leaks it back into the river. That mine – in the floodway – has a dubious environmental record at best. This seems to be a case of Government Gone Wild.
Dueling Studies Offer Different Opinions of Harvey-related Mouth Bar Volume
The City of Houston and Army Corps have reportedly argued for a year or more about how much sediment Harvey deposited in the mouth bar. Late last year, FEMA required the City to perform a core-sample study using something called the Stockton Protocol. The City hired Tetra Tech to do it. And Tetra Tech concluded Harvey deposited 1.4 million cubic yards. Here is their study.
The Corps, however, evidently did not buy the results. The Corps conducted another study for FEMA using a different protocol. It concluded Harvey deposited 500,000 cubic yards.
The Corps, however, refused to release the results of that study for public review.
FEMA and the Corps went ahead and hired Great Lakes to dredge that volume from the mouth bar. That job is now more than half complete.
As part of their refusal to release their study, they cited the need to keep “pre-decision” information confidential so that inter- and intra-agency personnel could debate the merits of proposals freely. I get that. What I don’t get is how they justify this as “pre-decision.” The job is almost complete!
Dredging Without a Plan
While inventorying the documents that the Corps DID send me, I also discovered that they are now dredging the mouth bar area – without a plan. I know this because I requested the plan and they did not supply it. A Corps representative then explained that they are still working on the plan. They hope to have it done before they complete the $17 million job.
The Corps could be saving much of that money by using Berry Madden’s property near Kings Lake Estates as a disposal site. That’s because they need more than 5,000 gallons of diesel per day and two extra boosters (plus their crews) to pump sediment 10 miles upriver to an old West Fork sand mine in the floodway.
At the current price of diesel (about $3/gallon), that’s about $15,000 per day for fuel alone. More than $100,000 per week. And more than $400,000 per month. Waaaaay more than the limit on my gas cards. So what does the Corps get for all that?
Dike Breaches of Placement Area in Floodway
Minor floods last December breached the dike of that sand mine at least three times. Sediment continues to sweep out of the mine.
It has caused additional shoaling (see below) that will need to be removed some day near the I-69 bridge. It even buried Great Lakes pipes, causing cost overruns for Phase 1.
A year ago, this same mine was caught on camera deliberately sending its process water straight into the West Fork.
Yet, while approving this site, the Corps reportedly has environmental concerns over a much closer disposal site that would require less fuel and fewer boosters. It’s also on higher ground and out of the floodway. It’s Berry Madden’s property in Humble immediately west of Kings Lake Estates between the West Fork and 1960.
The Corps may or may not have good reasons for disliking the property, but they won’t reveal them whatever they are.
After more than a year of environmental and archeological studies costing Madden more than $100,000, the Corps still has not approved or rejected his property. Nor have they explained delays in approving or rejecting it. The documents that the Corps DID supply show that they are throwing one obstacle after another in Madden’s path. Despite the fact that he’s on higher ground and farther from the river than the current placement area.
Meanwhile, the Corps subsidizes the sub-optimal sand mine/placement area above. Go figure!
Potential Setback for Future Dredging
One of the consequences of NOT having an approved site to store additional spoils is that it could delay future phases of dredging. Those potentially include:
- Additional mouth bar dredging
- 59 to River Grove Park
- Maintenance dredging
- Mouths of ditches such as Ben’s Branch
I filed my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Army Corps 50 days ago. I requested:
- Their plans for mouth-bar dredging
- Conference reports of meetings where the mouth bar was discussed
- Documents relating to the approval of Berry Madden’s property in Humble as a potential storage site.
About a month ago, they requested a clarification. “What do you mean by ‘plans’?” Seriously! The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needed to have the concept of plans explained????!!!
After more delays and excuses, five days ago, I received a compact disk in the mail with approximately 800 total pages of material. The Corps:
- OMITTED any mouth-bar plans.
- OMITTED the Corps study that contradicted the Tetra Tech study.
- WITHHELD 118 pages of material that could have explained their decision.
- REDACTED key correspondence relating to Madden’s property.
- SUBSTITUTED dredging status reports from contractor meetings for conference reports of meetings among City, State and Federal officials where decisions about the mouth bar were considered.
Government Gone Wild
After several phone calls in which I tried to cajole them into supplying the Corps’ study, I received another email from the Corps. It said that they considered my original FOIA request closed. They then asked me to submit another one for the same material that I requested in June. They seem to be treating this as a national-security issue, not a public-safety issue. Why?
Here’s the explanation from the Corps. The letter claims that they need to keep pre-decision information secret in order to foster free discussion between its employees and other government agencies and to avoid confusing the public.
Unfortunately, that does not allow informed discussion among the public, whose safety is at stake. Nor does it recognize the fact that they have already made a decision, i.e, to dredge 500,000 cubic yards and have half-completed the project. So how does this qualify as “pre-decisional”?
You’ll have to ask the man who signed this letter.
He has the title “Initial Denial Authority.” How many levels are there?
In my opinion, this is clearly a government agency out of control. The Corps has made a decision to dredge only 500,000 cubic yards – despite scientific evidence supporting a higher volume of 1.4 million cubic yards. And that scientific evidence was acquired using a protocol that the CORPS AND FEMA DEMANDED.
Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?
That leaves the State, County, City and the public in the lurch. Maybe a Congressional investigation could sort this out. That’s what it will take.
At this point, it’s not clear how, when or if the mouth-bar job will be finished. Five hundred thousand cubic yards is a small fraction of what needs to be removed to restore conveyance to the river.
It’s also not clear how many more hurdles the Corps will put in the way of a placement area farther from the river on higher ground. Or why.
A curtain of secrecy has descended upon this job. I will continue to follow the story. The public has a right to know.
Open Offer to Corps to Rebut Criticisms
If the Corps feels I have criticized it unjustly, I invite a spokesperson to explain the Corps point of view. I promise to reprint the rebuttal verbatim.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/9/2019
710 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts in this post represent my opinions on matters of public interest and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.