By Gerard Shields
WASHINGTON – A group of residents representing Louisiana environmental groups took over a conference room in the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., on Tuesday, refusing to leave until they met with her over hurricane recovery legislation that they said would be detrimental to the environment.
Attorneys for Advocates for Environmental Human Rights contend that Landrieu’s “Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act” contains several provisions that allow President Bush to waive numerous public health and environmental laws.
Two attorneys from the nonprofit group based in New Orleans, and seven Louisiana residents accompanying them, arrived at Landrieu’s office about 10 a.m. They waited in Landrieu’s conference room for about two hours even after being scheduled to meet with her at 3 p.m.
“This piece of legislation is an abomination,” Nathalie Walker, a lawyer and co-director of the group, said in a cell phone interview from Landrieu’s office. “We are in her office, and we are not budging.”
Walker called the Landrieu bill, introduced Sept. 22, the “most sweeping and environmentally destructive” legislation of four offered on the recovery effort.
The 450-page bill allows the president to issue “emergency permits” waiving any U.S. law for state and local governments or private entities for two years on projects related to Katrina, she said.
The bill also creates a Pelican Commission to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop new flood control, navigation and “ecosystem restoration” projects.
However, any project approved by the commission is automatically and permanently deemed to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act, Walker said.
The measure also waives the Clean Water Act as it relates to the application of pesticides to control mosquitoes and waives laws relating to timber production for salvage purposes or to ensure a secure timber supply for the pulp and paper industry, she said.
The legislation would automatically waive NEPA for any project or activity relating to recovery, reconstruction or repair in any area declared a major disaster, Walker said.
“Every single private citizen we talked to is astounded at how bad this legislation is,” Walker said.
Landrieu was participating in a committee meeting on small businesses when the environmental group arrived. Though the group said they had asked for a meeting through phone calls and a faxed letter, Landrieu’s office had no record of their request, said Adam Sharp, Landrieu’s communications director.
“They did not have an appointment,” Sharp said. “The senator had a very busy day.”
The Landrieu bill is not crafted to avoid environmental laws but to prevent regulations from hampering the recovery, Sharp said.
“Several projects in the past that could have helped New Orleans have been stalled by environmental regulation,” Sharp said.
Landrieu is not trying to skirt environmental laws and has even proposed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator sit on the Pelican Commission, he said.
“We’re not saying the commission shouldn’t consider the environmental concerns,” Sharp said. “We’re saying ‘Does the public protection of a project outweigh the negative environmental impact?’ ”
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., also sponsored the legislation, but Walker said her group would not target his office because he is a Republican.
“I don’t know if (Landrieu) knows who her constituents are,” Walker said. “We’re here in her conference room to remind her who they are.”
The group met with Landrieu for 15 minutes before continuing to talk with staff members handling the bill for about two hours.
“Clearly we have different positions on things,” Sharp said. “But we reiterated that Sen. Landrieu does not intend to turn her back on the environment. I certainly hope they felt heard.”
Landrieu told the group she would consider amending the bill.
“They’re promising to work with us,” Walker said. “But we’re not taking no for an answer, and today we didn’t get no.”