NEW ORLEANS — After years of delays and legal wrangling with environmental groups and residents of the Lower 9th Ward, the Army Corps of Engineers is once again looking at replacing a historic navigation lock inside New Orleans with a new lock to help speed up barge and maritime traffic moving through the city.
Under a court order, the Army Corps is doing a new environmental study of a controversial 1956 project to replace the Industrial Canal lock in the Lower 9th Ward with a new lock. The agency is holding a public meeting on the issue Wednesday evening.
This time around, though, the Army Corps says it is exploring the construction of a new lock in new locations while also examining the replacement of the lock on the Industrial Canal with a new structure. The corps says it is looking at locations up and down the river near New Orleans.
“Our options are open,” said Richard Boe, an Army Corps project manager. “We are just beginning this study.”
In 2011, U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon ordered the Army Corps to do a new environmental study. The corps was sued in 2003 by the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and environmental groups over plans to replace the lock. The lawsuit argued that replacing the lock would endanger adjacent neighborhoods.
Built in the early 1920s, the lock was a major civil works project and considered an engineering feat. From the moment New Orleans was founded in the early 1700s, engineers had sought — with repeated failures — to build a channel between the Mississippi and the waterways and lakes on the backside of the city.
The lock serves as a crucial link for barge and maritime traffic moving along the coast through the intracoastal waterway system, and it connects the Mississippi River to eastern waterways and the Gulf of Mexico.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the corps was interested in building a lock capable of handling deep-draft ships and making it easier for ships to move to and from the Mississippi River to the Gulf. But the corps’ projects in this area, including efforts to expand the Industrial Canal, were blamed for causing catastrophic flooding from Katrina by weakening floodwalls, killing marsh land and increasing the amount of storm surge that pounded the city.
Since Katrina, the corps has closed a ship channel that once led to the Industrial Canal from the Gulf and built a new barrier to protect the Industrial Canal from storm surge.
John Koeferl of the grassroots Citizens Against Widening the Industrial Canal urged the corps to look at building a new lock in a new location. But he said any new lock must not hurt other neighborhoods. He said the old Industrial Canal lock is an important piece of history that needs to be maintained and not replaced. He accused the corps of repeatedly favoring maritime interests over those of residents.
The barge industry, meanwhile, has long advocated replacing the locks. According to the corps, barges must wait on average 30 to 40 hours before they can move through the busy but narrow lock. In 2013, 30,105 vessels carrying 15.5 million tons of cargo passed through the lock, the corps said.
Jim Stark, the executive director of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, said the barge industry favors replacing the lock because it views it as unreliable and out-of-date. He said consumers and the barge industry would be hurt financially if the old lock were to close down for a long period due to mechanical problems.
The corps said it plans to do major maintenance this summer on the lock to prevent potential problems.
Boe said the new environmental study should be done by June 2016.