ST. LOUIS – An environmental group's federal lawsuit accuses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of ignoring requests that it publicly explain why it believes southwestern Illinois' Mississippi River levees are deficient and in need of millions of dollars in upgrades.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday on the American Bottom Conservancy's behalf, claims the Army Corps has failed to honor the group's Freedom of Information Act requests over the past year for documents detailing supposed shortcomings in the 64 miles of levees protecting a swath of land known as American Bottoms, which stretches along the Illinois side of the Mississippi River near St. Louis from Alton to Columbia.
The suit asks a judge to compel the Army Corps to release the documents, though no hearing on that matter was scheduled as of Friday.
While none of the southwestern Illinois levees — more than a half-century old — has failed, the Army Corps has said they require, by some estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to get them up to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards.
Without repairs, FEMA had said it planned to declare them functionally useless, a downgrade that would force thousands of homeowners with federally backed mortgages to buy flood insurance that opponents say would be unaffordable, even if they've never been swamped.
According to the lawsuit, the Army Corps has questioned whether the levees can handle a 100-year flood — that is, an inundation so big that it has only a 1 percent chance of happening any given year. That distinction is important because it's FEMA's threshold for classifying an area as high-risk, a determinant in dictating whether property owners would need flood insurance.
Caretakers of the levees have proposed a $161 million upgrade, financed largely by a quarter-cent sales tax that has been imposed in recent years in three counties protected by the levees. The American Bottoms area is home to roughly 156,000 people and some 55,000 jobs.
The Army Corps is weighing the tax proposal and whether to issue the necessary permits.
"Floodplain residents need to know their risk and how their money is being spent," Kathy Andria, president of the nonprofit American Bottom Conservancy, said in announcing the lawsuit. "It is outrageous that citizens have to file suit to get a governmental agency to provide information to which they are entitled."
She added: "More than any agency we've dealt with through the years, the Corps has a culture of thinking it is above the law when it comes to FOIA. It is not."
Mike Petersen, an Army Corps spokesman in St. Louis, declined to discuss the matter Friday, saying it was pending litigation.