Levee blasting issue goes to high court

May 1, 2011 at 7:46 PM
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CAIRO, Ill., May 1 (UPI) -- The loading of explosives to blow open a river levee was ordered Sunday even as Missouri officials asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

Cairo, Ill., was nearly deserted Sunday after the mayor called for an evacuation as high waters threatened to swamp the town at the state's southern tip.

The danger to the 2,800 residents is from a highly stressed levee at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers with more rain in the forecast.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a last-minute appeal to the nation's highest court to try to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from blowing a 2-mile-wide hole in the Birds View levee that would swamp 130,000 acres of Missouri farmlands.

"Although we acknowledge Missouri finds itself in a very challenging legal situation before the Supreme Court, I want to make sure we exhaust all potential legal remedies and ask every possible court to review the plan proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers," Koster said in a statement.

"In light of the devastation faced by the citizens of Mississippi County -- devastation that will persist in the area for years to come -- it is the responsibility of this office to pursue every possible avenue of legal review."

The Beacon said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said later Koster was making "yet another unfortunate and legally unjustified attempt" at keeping federal authorities from protecting Illinoisans. She said she would "fight this effort every step of the way."

The order to evacuate Cairo came after a Saturday meeting with the Corps of Engineers' commander of area flood-control operations and other officials to consider whether to deliberately breach the levee to relieve pressure at Cairo and elsewhere, the Southeastern Missourian reported.

Of major concern is a large "sand boil" -- an effect of excessive water pushing up through the ground, the newspaper said.

"This is the biggest sand boil we have ever laid eyes on," said Tom Morgan, the Cairo area commander for the Corps of Engineers.

Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said the floodwaters at Cairo are at historic levels and are expected to surpass 60 feet by Tuesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

"That's not just putting pressure here in Cairo, but the entire system is being put under pressure," Walsh said. "This is going to be the biggest amount of stress that these levees have been put under since we started the construction in 1928."

With federal appellate court approval Saturday, the Corps of Engineers moved barges loaded with 265 tons of liquid explosives into position near the levee, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The work of placing the explosives was ordered by Walsh Sunday and the decision whether to blow up the levee is up to him.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh ordered field crews on Sunday to move barges loaded with 250 tons of explosives across the river from Kentucky to Missouri and to load the pipes with the blasting agent.

The only step left - the final one - would be to activate the floodway, which would send Mississippi River floodwaters through the 130,000-acre floodway in Mississippi County.

"The final decision to activate the floodway has not been made. Repeat -- has not been made," the corps said in a release.

Walsh, who said he will monitor the situation continuously, said it will take about 20 hours to move the barges and fill pipes burrowed into the earthen levee, the Southeast Missourian reported.

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