Feds will pay for critical Wood River levee fixes

News-DemocratJanuary 14, 2014 

AP GRAPHICS BANK

— The budget bill that must pass by Saturday night to fund the federal government contains nearly $3.7 million for ongoing construction activities on a critical stretch of the Wood River flood protection levee near the Mel Price Lock and Dam.

The bill also contains $200 million for an undetermined number of high priority river levee repairs nationwide.

And Illinois' federal lawmakers are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spend at least $31 million of that money on critical repairs to the Wood River levee as soon as possible.

Without the repairs, the levee could collapse in the event of the next big flood, threatening the nearby Wood River Refinery and other expensive infrastructure.

The levee's problems stem from Mississippi River water that is steadily seeping underneath it, carving out a cavity that undermines the levee's foundation and forming sand cones, or sand boils, in the wetlands behind the levee. This problem stems from a design flaw found in the nearby lock and dam, the corps has acknowledged.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield worked with other Illinois lawmakers on the levee funding bill, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, and U.S. Reps. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.

The legislation funding the levee projects still must be approved by both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate before the deadline of midnight Saturday.

Other levee allocations in the funding bill include $4.1 million to pay for construction projects at the East St. Louis flood levee and $400,000 for the Chain of Rocks levee, near Granite City.

Despite its massive size, the nearly 1,600-page federal budget bill provides only a bare-bones look at the federal money flowing back to the metro-east.

Nonetheless, provisions in the budget bill show two other major items of interest to residents of Southwestern Illinois.

First, the budget bill guarantees funding for employees of federal contractors who oversee airport control towers, according to Andrew Flach, a spokesman for Davis.

Last March, when the steep budget cuts called sequestration took effect, it appeared that non-Federal Aviation Administration tower employees nationwide would be furloughed, threatening to close down five Illinois airports, including St. Louis Regional Airport, in Bethalto, and Southern Illinois Airport, in Carbondale.

The furloughs planned for Illinois airports were averted when Congress moved FAA money around to keep the towers open after a public outcry over airport delays caused by earlier controller furloughs at other airports.

Second, the budget bill prevents the Federal Emergency Management Agency from implementing new floodplain maps for the American Bottoms area of the metro-east.

"Hopefully, that's going to spare a lot of folks in our district," said Kevin Kern, an Enyart spokesman.

If the FEMA maps were to go into effect, flood insurance costs in the American Bottoms area would soar, making it difficult to sell or develop property on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, according to Kern.

Several others items in the budget bill will likely affect Scott Air Force Base, in Mascoutah, as well as other federal employers. The bill calls for:

* 1 percent pay raises for civilian employees -- their first across-the-board raise in three years -- and military personnel.

* $75 million for advance procurement for the F/A-18 aircraft made in St. Louis by Boeing.

* Maintaining funding for ammunition manufacturing at the Olin plant in East Alton.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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