Comite diversion project hits snag over pipeline relocation

Elected officials have been eager of late to announce new projects and new funding sources to address the region’s drainage and flooding problems, which were, once again, glaringly apparent during a mid-May weather event that dumped nearly 14 inches of rain on parts of the Capital Region.

They’re less willing to talk about the latest controversy causing delays in one of the area’s major flood-control projects—the Comite River Diversion Canal, a 12-mile channel that will divert water from the Comite and smaller tributaries into the Mississippi River.

Though significant work on the long overdue project has been underway since 2020, the original completion date of late 2021 has already been pushed back to late 2022, the Army Corps of Engineers said in March.

Now, completion could be delayed still further while negotiations drag on between Florida Gas Transmission Co. and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development over the relocation of an FGT pipeline that runs through the canal’s path.

FGT officials estimate the cost of the relocation at $40 million, which the state will reimburse. What remains unresolved, however, are the terms and timeliness of the reimbursement, as well as logistical concerns over how the relocation will affect FGT customers, FGT attorney Marjorie McKeithen says.

“FGT is actively engaged in negotiations with DOTD to come to an agreement that both allows FGT’s pipelines to be protected and relocated in a manner that does not interrupt FGT’s important service to its customers, consistent (federal regulatory) requirements and ensures just and timely reimbursement to FGT for the costly relocation, as required by Louisiana law,” McKeithen says. 

The two sides are currently negotiating a cost reimbursement agreement for one location in particular. McKeithen expects the agreement will be finalized “once my client has adequate assurance that FGT’s customers will not be impacted or lose service because of the project and that FGT will be timely and properly reimbursed.”

FGT previously performed work for DOTD on the canal and wasn’t reimbursed for some 14 months, she says.

“Given the tens of millions of dollars my client will spend in doing these relocations and protections, it is important for both parties to have written mechanisms in place to ensure costs are paid and the project is successful for all involved,” she says. 

DOTD, which is in charge of land and right of way acquisition for the project, declines to discuss specifics of the negotiations.

“As with many projects, utilities must be moved before construction can proceed,” DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallet says. “This is the case here in some locations as the pipeline has multiple crossings of the canal.”

He notes that work is continuing on the canal in areas where utilities have already been relocated but declines to discuss the reimbursement and logistical concerns apparently at issue for FGT. As for how long it might delay the project, he says only, “The delay of moving the utilities causes delays with that portion of the project.”

Corps spokesperson Rene Poche says that because the issue involves right of way acquisition, DOTD is the more appropriate party to comment on the situation. But he acknowledges that negotiations are impacting the start of construction.

McKeithen says FGT has worked with the state and the corps for years on the project and “fully supports it.” But she says her client’s pipelines transport more than 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas in interstate commerce to customers throughout the Gulf Coast region, including power generation, industrial and local distribution customers in Louisiana.

“The continued operation of these interstate pipelines is vital to local constituents,” she says. “The pipelines are impacted in about six to eight locations by the project. Given that these pipelines are common carriers transporting natural gas in interstate commerce … they are very unique compared to other local utilities.” 

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who was instrumental in securing the federal funding for completion of the canal three years ago, says the latest delay is unacceptable to a project of such importance.

“There were two major items holding up the project for 30 years—wetlands mitigation and nearly $400 million and we fixed both. Everything should be downhill now,” Graves says. “The schedule slipping a year is unacceptable. There is a lack of urgency and that needs to be remedied ASAP.”

Graves, who has been critical of DOTD and the corps in the past, says the Comite project is too important to the region to let progress languish.

“This isn’t some elective recreation project,” he says. “It could be life, death or result in the loss of all possessions. The heavy lifting has been done. It’s time to turn dirt.”