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EPA vetoes huge Mississippi Delta flood control project

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Using a rare veto, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected a federal plan Tuesday for the Army Corps of Engineers to build the world’s largest water pump in the Mississippi Delta.

First authorized by Congress in 1941, the $220 million Yazoo Backwater Pump Project would drain at least 67,000 acres of wetlands in Mississippi's sparsely-populated Yazoo River Basin, which is more than 200 miles northwest of New Orleans (many sources, mostly opponents of the project, say that it would drain up to 200,000 acres). The project would have benefited soybean farmers threatened by flooding, but environmentalists said that it would have harmed water quality and devastated the wetlands, which are home to endangered fish and migratory birds.

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The EPA agreed with the environmentalists and vetoed the project under a provision of the Clean Water Act. In a press release announcing the decision, the agency said that the project would have incurred "unacceptable damage to these valuable resources that are used for wildlife, economic, and recreational purposes."

This is only the 12th time that the EPA has issued a veto under the Clean Water Act. In the past, the agency has used the power to block a shopping mall and a dam in other states, but, as the Associated Press notes, the Yazoo project is 10 times larger than the other 11 vetoed projects combined.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, while most of the 47,000 public comments that the EPA received were opposed to the project, it has powerful advocates in Congress. These include Mississippi's Republican governor, Haley Barbour, as well as its two Republican senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, who argue that the EPA lacks the authority to overrule Congressional legislation. The Journal notes that the decision could be challenged in court.

Many have called the Yazoo project wasteful. In February, Time magazine's Michael Grunwald called the project "arguably the most ecologically destructive Army Corps boondoggle on the books today, which is saying something." He wrote that Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt labeled the project as  "godawful, cockamamie," and that even the Army Corps top lobbyist described the pump and another project as "economic duds with huge environmental consequences."

The Environmental Defense Fund, which urged its members to petition the EPA to veto the project, called the veto "scientifically sound and financially wise."