Army Corps of Engineers Under Scrutiny

Friday, March 30, 2001
Legislation introduced in Congress on March 29, 2001, would subject expensive and controversial Army Corps of Engineers' projects to an independent review panel, a move aimed at restoring credibility to the battered agency. The Corps, the federal agency responsible for building dams and designating floodplains, has been criticized by scientists and former agency officials for rigging data to help justify spending millions of dollars to upgrade Mississippi River locks.

Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, and 12 other lawmakers sponsored a House bill that would subject the Corps to closer scrutiny by public and independent review groups. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold. The proposed legislation would subject Army Corps projects that are controversial or cost more than $25 million to a review by an independent panel of experts. "Because of the cloud currently hanging over the Corps, many waterway projects have been put on hold," Kind said. The bills "will help restore public and Congressional trust in this agency by implementing reforms designed to increase fiscal responsibility and public accountability at the Corps," he said. The legislation also increases transparency in the decision-making process of the Corps by requiring the agency to publish the data it uses in its studies on the Internet.

The legislation followed a year in which the Corps has been investigated by two independent groups -- the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the National Academy of Sciences -- regarding the agency's $56 million study of Mississippi River improvements. The studies concluded the Corps gave preferential treatment to large businesses and failed to consider cheaper and less environmentally damaging alternatives. Corps chief Major Gen. Robert Flowers told a congressional panel in February that he accepted the findings in the two independent reviews. Flowers also promised to make changes in the agency.

Critics said the new legislation shows the Corps has not gone far enough in reforming itself. "I think this bill signals that Flowers' modest reforms were not ambitious enough for some members of Congress," said Scott Faber, water resources specialist for Environmental Defense. U.S. farm groups contend that failing to upgrade the Mississippi's 70-year-old locks and dams will slow shipments, raise transport costs, and lose foreign markets. But Green groups, concerned about fragile wetlands areas and wildlife, have tried to block any river upgrades. Environmentalists and tax advocates applauded Thursday's bill, saying it was necessary to restore their trust in the agency. "I think this an agency in denial. It is like a 12-step program, the first step is admitting you have a problem and the Corps refuses to do that," said Steve Ellis, director of water resources for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Hopefully, the Corps will see the writing on the wall with this legislation, and what they have heard in Congress, and choose to reform," he said. - (Reuters)

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