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Coastal Study Deadline Eroding Quickly 

  The proposed expansion of the state's coastal zone could hinge on a Department of Natural Resources study that's already one month late and needs several more weeks before its findings can be released to lawmakers. The concept of stretching the Louisiana coast's northern boundary was first broached last year when officials from Ascension Parish lobbied to be included in the zone. Coastal lawmakers, fearful of getting smaller pieces of the budget pie, quashed that bill and instead endorsed a study of the issue. Ascension officials returned this year and shared with members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee the parish's long history of flooding problems. Hurricane Gustav's tidal surge nearly overtook Ascension's pumps in 2008, while overflow from Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas has posed a challenge for generations.

  In fact, Ascension originally was included in the state's coastal zone in the 1970s, but local officials opted out of the program. Today, nearly one-third of Ascension resembles coastal property, Parish President Tommy Martinez told the committee. "I can't go back and change history, but we want to be included," Martinez says.

  Senate Bill 65 by Sen. Jody Amedee, D-Gonzales, breezed out of committee after only a few minutes, but the study ordered by lawmakers last year played a critical role in the bill's fate so far. Ascension officials only want to add the parts of their parish that are recommended for inclusion by the study. Amedee promised to provide lawmakers exact boundaries soon. He says he expects the area to span from Donaldsonville in the west to St. Amant in the east and up to Prairieville for the northern side. His bill would exclude Ascension's many chemical plants. Amedee says coastal zone regulations would place an undue burden on the local petrochemical industry. "And they're really not in the coastal zone," he said. "They're pretty high and dry."

  Last year, the Louisiana Legislature directed the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to begin a study and comprehensive review of the state's coastal zone boundary. Since then, the Department of Natural Resources' Office of Coastal Management has taken the lead and joined with other government agencies. The report was due back to lawmakers by March 10 "with findings," according to the resolution, but Amedee said last week that the study wouldn't be ready for another "couple of months," which makes for a tight squeeze because the session is set to end June 21.

  The study is well-financed and has been underway since last summer. About $442,000 has been pumped into the project, with the federal government bankrolling 79 percent and the state underwriting 21 percent in an effort to reach out to various stakeholders ranging from ports and commercial fishermen to chemical interests and landowners.

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