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U.S. Senators Threaten Action over Army Corps Reforms

by Christopher Doering, Reuters
Environmental News Network, June 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Two senators on Tuesday threatened to stall funding for a slew of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects unless Congress reforms the federal agency responsible for multibillion-dollar dams and public works.

Republican Robert Smith of New Hampshire and Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said the Corps' credibility must be restored after years of criticism for mismanagement and make-work projects.

The two senators said they would block passage of the Water Resources Development Act legislation that authorizes every two years which projects the Corps can begin unless Congress agrees to overhaul the agency.

Lawmakers "are not going to get these projects unless we get reform," Smith told reporters at a news conference. "We have a lot of things we can do on the floor to stop (the Water Resources Development Act) from moving. We're not in a compromising mood."

Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to reform the agency in Congress during the last few years. A bill introduced in March by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Smith, and Feingold would subject the Corps to an independent peer review and improve the financial benefits of a project before it can be allowed to proceed.

The beleaguered Corps, the federal agency responsible for building dams and designating flood plans, has long been criticized by environmental groups for wasteful spending and rigging data to justify projects that create jobs. The agency has a backlog of about $52 billion in unfinished projects.

Despite the criticism, the Army Corps of Engineers has the support of many lawmakers whose districts benefit from large public works projects.

Smith said he was "confident" that both Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and the White House would support reform.

Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, the chief engineer of the Corps, separately told a Senate environment panel he agreed changes were needed to reduce the agency's huge backlog of projects. "We have about $5 billion worth of inactive projects that technically remain on our books but whose designs won't solve the original problems or for which there is no longer support," Flowers told a panel hearing.

Environmental Damage Ignored
A federal interagency task force should "take a fresh look" at the backlog of projects and scrap some of them, he said.

Flowers acknowledged that the Corps has sometimes ignored environmental damage from its projects. "Frequently we are choosing the economic solution over the environmental, when we can actually have both," he said. "The future is to look at watersheds first, then design projects consistent with the more comprehensive approach."

In President George W. Bush's 2003 budget proposal, the administration said it wanted to block the Corps from starting new projects until it reduces its backlog. The White House proposal would require the Corps to complete 30 projects in 2003, or about 15 percent of its backlog.

Among the Corps' most controversial projects is a $60 million study that endorsed upgrading the aging 70-year-old lock and dam system in the Mississippi River. Several independent studies, including one from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, said there was an atmosphere within the agency that "led to manipulation" of some data.

Last week, the General Accounting Office, the congressional investigative arm, said the Corps overestimated the annual benefits of a $311 million Delaware River Deepening Project by nearly $27 million. The Corps suspended work on the project in early April after it was told of the GAO's findings.

Recent criticism prompted the Corps to review 172 projects to determine if they were economically feasible. That process, which took about two weeks and allowed work on many of the projects to continue, was criticized by many groups as nothing more than a quick-fix by the Corps to improve its reputation.

"We were duped into believing they had changed, when in fact they had just rubber-stamped the projects," said Steve Ellis, a spokesman with Taxpayers for Common Sense.


Christopher Doering, Reuters
U.S. Senators Threaten Action over Army Corps Reforms
Environmental News Network, June 19, 2002

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