Widening New Orleans’ Industrial Canal could pose “an existential threat” to the city’s most vulnerable community

In his recent novel, King Zeno, depicting New Orleans in 1918, author Nathaniel Rich writes about the construction of the Industrial Canal 100 years ago, a massive project intended to transform the city into a world-class port. The Port of New Orleans built the 5-mile long, deep-draft navigation channel through the Ninth Ward to connect the winding Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain, shortening the distance ships and barges needed to travel to reach the Gulf of Mexico. In his narrative, Rich also describes corruption, payoffs, expropriation of private property, evisceration of a 375-acre cypress forest populated by 200,000 trees and exploitation of hundreds of poor blacks who worked long shifts, knee-deep in fetid mud and quicksand that threatened to swallow them alive. “The concerns we have today are the same concerns they had 100 years ago,” said the Rev. Willie Calhoun, a longtime Ninth Ward resident.
A home in the shadow of the St. Claude Bridge.
Rich wrote: “The conditions were unwholesome, hospitable to the plague, the mud attracting mosquitoes, blackflies, chiggers, opossums, rats – scourges that only multiplied when the project’s scope was doubled to accommodate the larger ships built since the [First World] War began.” The excavation project faced opposition from residents who wondered how digging a huge canal in their back yard might affect daily transportation and safety. “You are talking about economically killing this community. They will do irreversible damage to this neighborhood,” Calhoun said. “The culture is under attack.” Current residents are angry the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has revived its plan to widen the Industrial Canal to allow bigger ships and multiple vessels to pass through repopulated neighborhoods. Since 1954, the Corps has made repeated attempts to deepen and widen the canal despite public resistance. The 13-year or longer project, estimated to cost $1 billion, would entail dismantling the historic St. Claude Bridge, building a temporary bridge, relocating some homeowners and dredging toxic sediment from its bottom. “We expect the Corps’ economic study will have a lot of color graphs of benefits and almost no downside,” said John Koeferl, president of Citizens Against Widening the Industrial Canal (CAWIC). “The downside is when the floodwall collapses, community floods, wetlands disappear. They dig and we flood. Since we can’t sue them, why should they include that in the cost analysis?” Jeff Treffinger, an architectural historian who has studied the lock, believes the Corps has no final plan, calling the project “a work in progress.” “They haven’t figured how to do the demolition of the historic lock – a pretty complex project, to say the least.” The lock is 225,000 cubic tons of concrete, not counting the steel. The length and width of the submerged structure is nearly the same size as the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, he added. By relocating the lock 1/4-mile north of its existing location and building 24-foot tall flood walls, the Corps would invite Mississippi River water into a residental neighborhood with increased danger of overtopping.
New homes built next to the St. Claude Bridge.
“That’s a big existential threat,” Treffinger said. In 1999, CAWIC received a McKnight Foundation grant for independent sampling of Industrial Canal sediments likely to be disturbed by the project. With the help of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the research resulted in a federal judge stopping the lock project in 2006, pending a new Environmental Impact Statement. Geologist Barry Kohl, Ph.D., participated in the McKnight study, going out in a boat to take samples of sediment, which were found through laboratory analysis to have dangerous levels of arsenic, barium, chromium and poly aromatic hydrocarbons. The Corps’ intention is to dispose contaminated soil in fragile wetlands. “The sediments are contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals,” according to Kohl who served as an expert witness during the litigation. “The Corps ignores public health and only focuses on navigation for shipping,” Kohl added. As a result of U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects, including the Industrial Canal and Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal (MRGO), the Lower Ninth Ward has been flooded twice. Warily and slowly, former residents reclaimed their properties and rebuilt their homes. More than a decade after Katrina, the neighborhood is finally showing signs of progress with a new fire station, recreation center, high school and pharmacy, but construction will throw a wrench in the works. St. Bernard engineers, John Laguens and Tim Doody, testified at a public meeting that towing additional barges into the lock and the higher water tables resulting from moving the lock inland will necessitate both bridges to be frequently raised simultaneously and for longer periods.
The Industrial Canal
Widening the canal would strangle traffic for 50,000 people, stifle real estate investment, hamper hurricane evacuations and again put the Lower 9 once at risk for flooding. Profit-minded shipping companies such as Bollinger Shipyards will benefit while local business development and residents’ concerns are dismissed. When the Industrial Canal began operation in 1923, it was touted as a catalyst for commercial shipping. The canal connects the Mississippi with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, a 1,300-mile inland system running from Texas to Florida. But the Industrial Canal has never lived up to its promotions, nor fostered large-scale industrial development along its banks. After the additional dredging of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), salt water intrustion killed the remaining cypress trees. The canal separated the city from the Lower Ninth Ward and brings traffic to a complete halt every 20-30 minutes. It also decimated wetlands that once reduced the force of tropical storms. While the Corps of Engineers argue that the lock is antiquated and too small for modern shipping vessels, a 2007 study underwritten by the Corps Reform Network and the Rockefeller Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health showed that demand for additional capacity was exaggerated. “Failure to Hold H2O: Economics of the New Lock Project for the Industrial Canal,” a report produced by Dr. Robert Stearns, an expert in transportation economics, enumerated developments that have undermined the canal’s importance, including: significant reductions of commercial traffic transiting the lock; average delay times well below forecast; changes to the cost-sharing agreement, shifting many costs to the federal government, and closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal (MRGO). “These findings and recommendations are based on the economic analysis alone. When considered in concert with unresolved environmental and community concerns, the case against this project is overwhelming,” according to the report. “The Corps basically incentivizes disaster because even when bad things happen, they make money,” Koeferl remarked.
St. Claude Bridge at the Industrial Canal
By spending almost $1 billion, replacing a recently refurbished bridge, disrupting life on the east side of the canal for more than a decade, there might not be any benefit. “We really need to close that canal,” Koeferl said. “We don’t need to have this upheaval in the middle of this city with all the inherent flood risk.” “It was true that the canal flew against two centuries of municipal strategy, which called for keeping water out of the city at all cost, first with a parapet of earthen levees and later the modern drainage system. But what would happen if the rain kept coming? If all the springs of the great deep burst forth and the floodgates of the heavens opened, overwhelming Mr. Wood’s screw pumps? The lake swelling, the river rising. The water finding the weak spots in the canal walls and bursting through crevasses into the defenseless city. The Industrial Canal would no longer be ‘the realization of a splendid vision’ but a ravenous wolf exacting vengeance.” -Nathaniel Rich