WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said he may threaten to hold hostage the nomination of a new Environmental Protection Agency administrator until the agency stops holding up an impact statement on a controversial levee proposal in Missouri’s Bootheel.

But U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said Wednesday that it would be “very premature” to consider such a tactic to spur a decision on the decades-old St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway proposal, which would close a 1,500-foot-wide gap in the levee system at the floodway’s southern end.

Local farmers and some Missouri lawmakers call it a key flood-protection project – saying it’s essential to stopping the backwater that seeps into the area when the Mississippi River is high. But environmental and taxpayer groups contend that the project would be a waste of $160 million and a threat to the river and wetland environment.

The two Missouri senators -- Blunt, a Republican, and McCaskill, a Democrat -- had been scheduled to meet with EPA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and Army Corps of Engineers officials on Wednesday to discuss the delays in approving a revised Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. That session was postponed because McCaskill was called to a Pentagon meeting on another topic.

While the White House has yet to nominate a new EPA head, there are reports that Gina McCarthy – now an EPA assistant administrator – is likely to be nominated soon to replace outgoing EPA leader Lisa Jackson. Blunt, anxious to spur action on the Bootheel project, told reporters Wednesday that he may target that nomination to gain leverage.

“I’m giving serious consideration to putting a ‘hold’ on the EPA administrator appointment – when that appointment is made – until this problem is solved,” Blunt said.

“The EPA has been outrageous in they way they have dealt with this floodway. They’ve been holding the environmental impact study so that nobody gets to see it.” He acknowledged that the Fish & Wildlife Service also has held up the EIS, but said "the vacancy to be filled now is at the EPA."

Later in the day, McCaskill told reporters that “it’s premature to talk about" the possibility of a Senate 'hold' -- a tactic that delays a vote on a nominee until a senator's objection is addressed. "What we’ve got to do is get Fish & Wildlife and EPA and the Corps in a room and say, 'Can you guys get an agreement? If not, why not?'”

She added: “Let’s figure out where the disagreement lies, whether or not we can get it worked out. Until we do that, I think it would be very premature to talk about ‘holding’ anybody.”

Project was rejected by a federal court in 2007

The St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project, first proposed in the 1950s and later authorized by Congress, was started late in 2006, but the work was halted after the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund filed suit, alleging that the Corps’ EIS for the project was flawed.

In 2007, U.S. District Judge James Robertson in Washington — ruling that the Corps had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously" by claiming falsely that its plan "would fully mitigate impacts" to the fisheries habitat — barred the Corps from proceeding with the project and ordered it to "deconstruct that portion of the project which is has already built." He ordered the land to be restored.

Since then, the Corps – previously at the urging of former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau – has been reviewing the project and developing a revised EIS, which was scheduled to be completed in December but has been held up by experts at the Fish & Wildlife Service and the EPA who have doubts about the project.

As the Beacon reported in September, Missouri lawmakers and farm groups have been at odds with national and regional environmental and taxpayer organizations who oppose the project.

Brad Walker, the rivers and sustainability director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment contended this week that the project “could significantly damage more than 50,000 acres of the tiny fraction of historical wetlands remaining in the Bootheel.

"The public would be paying for the construction of this wasteful project for decades and concurrently losing the wetland annual benefits (worth up to $10,000 an acre) - which each year alone could exceed the cost of the project.”

But Blunt told reporters that the figures on wetlands that would be impacted by the project vary widely from study to study, with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service estimating only about 520 acres.

Both Blunt and McCaskill said they wanted closure on the project plan, although Blunt has made it clear that he fully supports building the levee and related pumping stations designed to keep river backwater out of the floodway.

“Every time you have that backup [through the levee gap], it creates a certain amount of expense,” Blunt said. He contended that EPA officials “have not behaved responsibly” in holding up the EIS.

McCaskill, who has called for a decision without directly endorsing the levee project, acknowledged that some are concerned about the possibility of further legal action if the project goes forward.

“There’s no question that – since there has been successful litigation over this [project] before by some of the environmentalists – that is weighing heavily on everyone’s mind, as to whether or not whatever done will pass the test of any court scrutiny,” she said.

“I get that, but just moving [the EIS] around forever and never reaching a conclusion is not a good answer either.”