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Privately funded coastal restoration group waits - and wonders

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BELLE CHASSE, LA (WVUE) -

The developers of a  privately funded coastal restoration project below New Orleans say similar projects are now at a standstill. They are urging the Army Corps of Engineers to adjust its reimbursement process, but the Corps says it needs a little more time.

It is a short airboat ride from the Ollie pump station off of Highway 23, to some of the newest land in the country. Just 12 miles from New Orleans and two miles off Highway 23 below Jesuit Bend is a half square mile section of new wetlands created from sediment pumped in from the river in a process we showed you last year.

Restoration Systems and Great Lakes dredging spent millions to rebuild wetlands, hoping to be reimbursed through a wetlands mitigation bank designed to restore wetlands through payments received from others.

"Wetlands mitigation is meant to provide offsets for damage that can't be avoided," said George Howard with Restoration Systems, Inc. About 1.3 million cubic yards was pumped in from a permanent pipe below the river levee, which brought in sand from a depth of 100 feet in the Mississippi River.

"We've restored the newest 250 acres of land in the United States and certainly Louisiana," said Howard.

It is a technique that coastal experts hope to use across South Louisiana to restore ravished marsh needed to sustain life and to serve as a storm buffer. But there's a problem.

"If this had gone as planned, that pipe would still be putting sediment into the marsh," said Howard.

Restoration Systems hasn't been granted  mitigation credits worth tens of thousands of dollars it believes it deserves.

"The Corps is not prioritizing coastal restoration as protected mitigation. They are allowing farm fields and agricultural conversion, where you have a farm field near a marsh that might be a little salty, to go ahead and transition back into marsh. That's not protecting the coast," said Howard.

While the developers wait for reimbursement issues to be settled, the sediment has had a chance to establish itself. Alligators, flocks of migratory birds and a pair of nesting bald eagles thrive on the new wetlands. The project involved a lot more than just pumping in river sand. Restoration Systems went to great pains to restore natural marsh grasses, planting four types. Thirty indigenous plants have now taken root.

"Right now we are on a seven-year model and have met all our marks. It's doing well right now," said project biologist Greg Fell.

George Howard believes such privately funded reclamation projects could be vital in the monumental effort to restore Louisiana's coast, but he says the Corps needs to allow reimbursement credits to flow.

"Your coast is on fire, and we've showed up with a fire hose," said Howard.

Until his company recoups its investment, Howard said other projects badly needed to restore the coast will have to wait.

Corps spokesman Rene Poche' said the holdup has more to do with its current review of the project's request for mitigation credits, and less to do with the courts. He said the Corps is currently reviewing Restoration Systems' request, and he said that review should be completed in six weeks. After that, he says, the company could be in line for mitigation reimbursements, if all goes well.

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