The Internet is boiling with material saying the Sierra Club caused the New Orleans disaster by filing two lawsuits to stop upgrading or reinforcement of levees in Louisiana.

The Club says the charges are false; regardless, they now appear on several thousand Web pages, with Google recording 9,330 hits.

National Review magazine published a Sept. 8 article by John Berlau that may have been the origin of the story. It said, “The national Sierra Club was one of several environmental groups who sued the Army Corps of Engineers to stop a 1996 plan to raise and fortify Mississippi River levees.” Noting that the lawsuit delayed the project, Berlau wrote, “Whether this delay directly affected the levees that broke in New Orleans is difficult to ascertain.”

Berlau never mentioned the location of the levees. Sierra Club officials say they were north of New Orleans, nowhere near the coast. In addition, the levees that broke with Katrina’s force, causing devastation in New Orleans, were not Mississippi River levees. Club officials in San Francisco issued a statement describing the two lawsuits over levees in Louisiana with which it has been involved.

Mississippi River Basin Alliance vs. Lancaster was filed in 1996. The Club says it had nothing to do with the Gulf Coast. It involved levees stretching through three states that would have been located a hundred miles north of New Orleans.

“Conservation groups and others did not oppose the idea of raising the levees, but they did have strong concerns about the fact that Corps wanted to drain as much as 11,000 acres of bottomland hardwood wetlands, crucial to health and safety of the Lower Mississippi Basin, to supply the construction material for those levees,” the Sierra Club statement says. Members of the Louisiana Legislature expressed concerns about the project, too.

In the second case, Save Our Wetlands v. Rush, the Club says it opposed “a 25-mile long barrier and gate system from the Mississippi border to the Mississippi River [that] would have choked off water exchange into Lake Pontchartrain, dooming an incredibly productive fishery.” Local commercial fishermen were strongly opposed to the project. The Sierra Club joined a lawsuit filed 28 years ago that was supported by many locals in the area after the Army Corps refused to evaluate impacts. The Corps also refused to provide information to a federal judge and later abandoned the project itself.

Meanwhile, Mississippi reporter Jerry Mitchell last week published an e-mail sent out by the Bush administration looking for information that could be used to blame environmental groups for Katrina’s damage. In a story in the Jackson Clarion Ledger, Mitchell quoted a U.S. Justice Department message sent to state U.S. attorneys offices: “Has your district defended any cases on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers against claims brought by environmental groups seeking to block or otherwise impede the Corps work on the levees protecting New Orleans? If so, please describe the case and the outcome of the litigation.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...