Backed by the gambling industry, Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi outmuscled army officials who tried to impose a moratorium on casino projects along the coast. We speak with Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald. [includes rush transcript]
- Michael Grunwald, Reporter from the Washington Post, wrote a recent article looking at Senator Trent Lott’s successful efforts to stop a ban from casinos being built on the Mississippi coast.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone from Washington, D.C. by Michael Grunwald, reporter for the Washington Post. He wrote a recent article that looks at Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican’s successful efforts to stop a ban on casinos being built on the Mississippi coast. Now, how does that play in here, the story of casino development and Hurricane Katrina, Michael Grunwald?
MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, back when those casinos were being stuck on the waterfront there around Biloxi and Gulfport, there was actually some concern by the Clinton administration appointee who was helping to oversee the Army Corps of Engineers that they were building in harm’s way and destroying the coastal marshlands over there, and he had decided there would be a moratorium on casino development over there, which was politically extremely explosive. The next thing he knew, there were frantic calls running around, and Senator Lott ended up triggering an investigation of this particular appointee to see whether he had a conflict of interest because he and his brother-in-law were both working for environmental protection in the Mississippi area.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, your piece, along with Jane Mayer’s piece in the New Yorker called "High Stakes: On Trent Lott’s Bad Bet," she writes that Carol Browner was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration when many casinos in Mississippi were constructed. Speaking from her office at the Washington consulting firm where she now works, Browner recalled the difficulties that her department experienced years ago when they tried to persuade legislators, including Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, that building on wetlands was environmentally risky. Developers and the politicians who supported them argued that gambling would attract commerce to the state.
"The proposed casinos," Browner said, "were supposed to be in the water because the state didn’t want them on solid land. To accommodate the moral qualms of conservative locals, the legislature relegated gambling to navigable waters," she went on, but Browner says, "But they were huge and they were right up against the shore. If you put structures this big into an estuary, you’re disrupting the aquatic life and changing the habitat and eradicating wetlands, which has a huge effect on drainage. The wetlands act like a sponge in a storm. They’re an incredibly smart and helpful part of nature, but they have to be kept moist like a sponge on your kitchen counter. If they’re dried out and developed, they don’t work. The shoreline’s a very important buffer in the storm."
And she said the more that they pressed to protect the wetlands, Lott was particularly single-minded in his support of casino development. She said, "I had barely taken office," Browner said, "when I discovered there was a hold on a department nominee." She said "I didn’t have a clue on who put the hold on the nominee. Then Trent Lott called me up and said he’d done it. He told me, 'I figured I'd have a problem with the E.P.A., I don’t have one yet, but this is a warning to you.’ Then he lifted the hold but the message was clear."
What about Trent Lott’s power and the irony of his — one of his homes, I suppose his summer home in Mississippi being totally destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, along with so many of his neighbors?
MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, I mean, he was Senate Majority Leader at the time. He was —- the Republicans were raising a lot of money from gambling, gambling companies. I remember around that time Lott took a flight on Steve Wynn’s corporate jet to a fundraiser out in Vegas. You know, as for -—
AMY GOODMAN: And Steve Wynn is?
MICHAEL GRUNWALD: As for Senator Lott’s house, I mean, you know —
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Wynn is?
MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Oh, he’s a very large casino operator. You know, his house Senator Lott built in Pascagoula — that’s at a place that’s had a tough time, you know. I think a lot of people built in harm’s way. I don’t think it’s ironic in any sense of the word. I mean, it’s just — you know, it’s sad for him like it’s sad for everybody who lost their house.
AMY GOODMAN: This issue of ultimately how something like this can be avoided again, in terms of the level of destruction, though, is interesting, with actually looking at who was responsible for the erosion of the wetlands.
MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, I mean, let’s make it straight. I mean, the damage in Mississippi, particularly coastal Mississippi, was not because of the loss of coastal wetlands. It was because it got hit by a category four hurricane. And those coastal wetlands would not have — particularly on the Mississippi side, would not have done a heck of a lot to stop the damage. Now, you can — on Louisiana’s side there have been 80 years of loss of wetlands that are — it’s a much more complex situation.
It’s not because somebody built a casino on the shoreline. It’s because the Army Corps of Engineers has been building levees along the Mississippi that stopped the kind of natural delta building process. It’s because oil and gas companies have built canals and there have been public navigation canals, and over time, that has diminished. They’ve been losing 25 square miles of marshes a year, and that’s certainly had some effect. Again, not necessarily a dispositive effect but an effect on the storm surges.
But, I think if what you’re getting at is that people have built in harm’s way, that’s certainly true, and there are a lot of sometimes perverse government incentives that have allowed people to build in harm’s way, but I don’t think you can blame the damage to Trent Lott’s house or most of the other damage in Mississippi to the fact that tidal flows in the estuary were being blocked by casinos.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I was just reading your piece, as you talk about the Mississippi Delta, "Scientists noting the most engineered and industrialized delta in the world, but disaster struck anyway," the levees only, you know, being constructed for a category three hurricane, and then you quote Jane Bullock, Chief of Staff of FEMA under Clinton saying, "There’s only two kinds of levees, ones that have failed and those that will fail," and Benigno Aguirre, the professor at the Disaster Research Center at University of Delaware, "The disaster in New Orleans is not an act of God. This is an act of man. The federal government refused to spend the money to improve levees."
MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Right, and now for New Orleans, I think it’s — that it’s a much more complex situation. All I was saying is that Mississippi was hit by — you know, Mississippi, you build on the coast, you know, you pay your money, then you take your chances. But New Orleans was certainly a much more complex situation where, you know, some of — years of engineering and trying to control nature and, in some senses, very successfully controlling nature by reducing Mississippi River floods, may have contributed to the vulnerability of the city, which is, after all, below sea level and sitting in a bowl.
So that’s a slightly different situation than the casinos, which — you know, Trent Lott fought to make sure those casinos could be in harm’s way. They were put in harm’s way, and they ended up getting flung all over the place. But the casinos, I don’t think you could say, caused additional damage to the rest of Mississippi. They just got a lot of — thanks to their political juice, they were able to sit where they were for so long and make a lot of money where they were, and then it didn’t end up so well for them, but now, of course, the casino companies are trying to get bailed out like everybody else.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Grunwald, I want to thank you for joining us, reporter with the Washington Post. When we come back, Bill Arkin joining us, former Army intelligence analyst and consultant runs a blog on the Washington Post website called Early Warning, about the military being called in, something that Allison Young also is writing about at Knight Ridder.