March 19, 2004
Critics of Corps of Engineers pursue reforms in Congress
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - Due to political pressure from Congress and its own bias toward large endeavors, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving ahead with $12 billion in projects that harm the environment and waste taxpayers' money, a report released Thursday by the National Wildlife Federation and Taxpayers
for Common Sense contends.
Included is the controversial $2.3 billion proposed lock-expansion plan for the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, which the report ranks as the fourth most environmentally threatening and fiscally wasteful corps project nationwide.
The 91-page report, which purports to document the corps' most
scandal-plagued projects, is aimed at bolstering efforts in Congress to reform the way that the corps and lawmakers approve water projects.
Critics of the corps hope the compilation will convince people that "this is an agency that is out of control, that it serves as nothing more than a lever for pork-barrel projects for members of Congress," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers For Common Sense.
In rebuttal, corps spokesman Dave Hewitt said that each of the projects cited contains changes "that reflect concerted efforts to ensure they achieve a balance of economic and environmental interests."
A $521 billion deficit and the Bush administration's repeated calls for corps reforms in his annual budget requests to Congress lead Ellis and other corps critics to believe reform efforts stand a better chance this year than in the past.
"It's a perfect storm of events that should be able to get us a reform," said Ellis, who added that his group would fight any bill that does not have reform measures in it.
Last week, Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a corps-reform proposal that combines several measures that were unsuccessful in recent years.
Their bill would require independent review of all corps projects costing more than $25 million, would require the corps to place equal focus on economic development and environmental protection, and would increase a proposed project's required benefits to be 1.5 times greater than the cost.
A Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee is expected to hold a hearing later this month on the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes new water projects. The corps' critics would like to see reform measures added at the committee level or when the bill comes to the Senate floor.
The House passed a bill authorizing new water projects last fall. It contains some reform measures, but not enough to satisfy the corps' critics.
Like the Feingold bill, the House bill would require the corps to issue a report to Congress on the agency's $58 billion backlog in construction projects. But the House bill doesn't require the corps to avoid environmental damage or to mitigate for damage that can't be avoided, as the Feingold proposal does.
"A little more than a year ago, the debate was really whether reforms were needed, and now it's more of a question of what will reforms look like," Ellis said.
The corps currently is redoing a feasibility study of the proposed
lock-expansion project on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers after a whistleblower in 2000 alleged the corps was manipulating economic data to justify the expensive project.