Plaquemines Parish spends $7 million on coastal project in Orleans, only to see no benefit

Plaquemines Parish spends $7 million on coastal project in Orleans, only to see no benefit

(WVUE) - Three years after Plaquemines Parish paid $7 million for a coastal restoration project in Orleans Parish, Plaquemines has yet to derive any benefit from the deal.

Through a complicated series of events, the parish planned the expense to offset damage to wetlands in Plaquemines for a ridge project that never got built.

Under federal law, developers, landowners, local governments or anyone else that damages wetlands must offset the damage.

Oftentimes, that involves paying money to a "mitigation bank," which actually performs the work. In return, they receive mitigation credits.

Three years ago, when Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser was Plaquemines Parish president, he chose a mitigation bank near Chef Menteur Highway to offset damage from Reach B2, a planned $50 million ridge project south of Port Sulphur on the west bank. With the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Plaquemines paid $7 million to the owners of the mitigation bank.

When the bids for the project came in high, the new parish council abandoned the project.

"I think (taxpayers) would be highly insulted that that much money was expended and we have no benefit," said Parish Councilman Benny Rousselle, a frequent Nungesser critic.

Then in his second term as parish president, Nungesser wanted to avoid the kind of long delay often associated with coastal projects.

The parish was taking bids on the ridge project, a 7.8 mile long, 150-foot wide elevated area of marsh that would have been designed as another layer of hurricane protection.

"Every year, we hold our breath for hurricane season," Nungesser said. "The reason we bought (credits), they were available to get this project started quickly and start building those berms."

He reasoned it would have taken longer to arrange for a mitigation bank in Plaquemines Parish. When the bids came in high, Nungesser pushed to rebid the project.

However, the outgoing parish council chose to pass the decision to the next council.

Late Parish President Amos Cormier Jr., pushed to abandon the ridge project and sprinkle the money among a series of other projects, most notably a 12-foot-high levee on east bank of Plaquemines.

Nungesser questions the legality of redirecting money from a $90 million bond issue without the approval of the State Bond Commission.

This week, Cormier's son and successor, Amos Cormier III, is in Washington for a series of meetings. He hopes to convince the Corps to allow the parish to use the mitigation credits on another project or to sell the credits.

While Nungesser critics point to millions of dollars in consultant fees, Nungesser insists the bids were higher than expected because they mistakenly included maintenance costs.

To this day, he insists the ridge project could have been built with the available funding.

"When you move that money to another project, you can't assume you can use those credits," Nungesser said.

Cormier hopes to use the mitigation credits to offset wetland damage from a west bank levee project.

"That's a loss of $7 million of taxpayer money that I'm going to fight to protect," Cormier said.

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