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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Future of levee project rests, literally, on clay

By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
November 20, 2007

Construction work continues on the 17th Street Canal near the levee wall that failed during Katrina and flooded parts of New Orleans. Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — The project to rebuild this region's critical levee system is in need of some good old Louisiana clay.

But a clay shortage — and a subsequent rise in its price — may slow progress in rebuilding the levees in and around New Orleans.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. agency in charge of the levee project, will need an estimated 145 million cubic yards of clay to fortify 350 miles of earthen levees around the greater New Orleans area, said Soheila Holley, a senior program manager with the corps charged with finding the clay.

In the two years since Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers has only acquired 20 million cubic yards, she said. An additional 50 million cubic yards are being tested.

"This is one of the most complex issues of the hurricane protection system," Holley said, noting that Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes are nearly out of quality clay, which keeps water from penetrating levees.

Importing clay from neighboring states would add costly hauling fees, she said.

Levee and flood wall breaches were the main causes of the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans following Katrina. The corps has begun work on a $7.5 billion, 100-year hurricane protection system that includes more than 300 projects, such as reinforcing levees, installing new floodgates and closing harmful canals. A 100-year hurricane is a storm with a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year.

Though it's still too early to tell what impact it may have overall, a lack of good clay could potentially impede the project's progress. "There's not enough land in the vicinity," she said. "We need a lot of material, it has to be good, and it has to be at a reasonable cost. Those are our current challenges."

Both the reddish-orange Pleistocene clay and gunmetal blue Holocene clay are found along the Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana and both could make strong levees if mixed properly, said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California-Berkley who has led studies of the levees.

The clay is found about 20 feet under backyards and fields near the riverbank, pushed there by the Mississippi over millenniums, Bea said.

The corps acquired as much of the clay as possible immediately after Katrina. But as the need for the clay increased, a new breed of entrepreneurs, known as "clay brokers," began acquiring properties from landowners and selling the clay to the corps, often at increased prices, Bea said.

DRC, a Mobile, Ala.-based construction management firm, has acquired around 10,000 acres in Louisiana containing 20 million cubic yards of clay since Katrina, said Chuck Prieur, a program manager with the firm. DRC has sold the clay for levee construction since winning a contract late last year, he said. There were 20 other firms vying for that contract, Prieur said.

"A lot of people are getting into the business of selling clay," he said. "It's a commodity we're looking to sell. The opportunity is there for potentially a good profit."

Clay prices soared to around $80 a cubic yard immediately after the hurricane, then settled to $20 to $30 a cubic yard this year, Prieur said. The clay sold for around $10 a cubic yard pre-Katrina, Bea said.

For now, the Corps of Engineers is trying to deal directly with landowners and avoid the brokers to keep costs down, Holley said. But as clay becomes scarcer, the agency may have to go to market for the firm earth, she said.

"We'll avoid that to the point we can avoid it," Holley said. "But there may be a point where we'll have to."

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