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Corps Reportedly Urged to Pull Dam Recommendation

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, April 20, 2000

Northwest dam defenders went ballistic Wednesday after The Washington Times reported top political appointees allegedly forced the Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw its recommendation against breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

"It sounds like the White House didn't like the Corps recommendation to keep the dams, so their answer was to silence ... the very agency charged with studying the issue," said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., in a press statement. "What little credibility the Clinton-Gore White House had over whether to breach the four lower Snake River dams has seriously been undermined."

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said he would ask the U.S. House Resources Committee for an investigation into possible political interference within the Corps. "I find this very disturbing," he said.

A similar probe is reportedly already under way in the Senate.

Citing federal documents, The Washington Times said senior political appointees last fall "privately ordered" the Corps to erase from a report a recommendation that taking out the dams was not the best option for saving endangered salmon and steelhead. Other ideas are to continue upgrading the dams so they do less harm to fish.

At Idaho Rivers United in Boise, conservation scientist Scott Bosse said the news of political redirection was no surprise to the environmental community. "We had heard ... that the Corps had selected a preferred alternative a long time ago and that it got yanked," he said.

Unlike dam defenders, however, Bosse sees no wrongdoing. "If there is any scandal at all, it was that the Corps of Engineers made a really bad decision by turning its back on all the science."

In an Oct. 22 memo obtained by the Herald, the assistant secretary of the Army gave Corps officials "conceptual guidance" on the environmental impact statement they were preparing to unveil.

"The Army does not at this time have a preferred alternative," said Joseph W. Westphal, a civilian Corps official. "Therefore, we need to ensure that ... all related discussions and correspondence are consistent with this policy guidance and do not identify a preferred alternative at this time."

Two months later - after several months of delay - the Corps released its environmental review without a recommendation on the fate of the dams, saying that decision would be made after agency officials heard from the public. A recommendation is expected by this fall.

Only Congress has the authority and money to take out the dams. But Congress can't elect a president.

Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance in Portland, said it seems that Vice President Al Gore was doing some pre-election-year waffling between conflicting demands of constituents. At the time, environmental groups were petitioning the vice president to breach the dams while another Democratic bastion, labor unions, was lining up to protect the dams.

"What's the most risk-averse position?" asked Lovelin. "Not to take a position."

The official story is different.

The Washington Times quoted Army officials saying that a recommendation last fall would have been "premature ... and that the public interest would be better served if more information was brought to bear on the issue."

But the newspaper also cited a Defense Department official who "could not recall" another time when Army officials had ordered a recommendation be removed from a Corps environmental study.

A Corps of Engineers spokesman at the Walla Walla district office directed questions to Army officials at the Pentagon who could not be reached by the Herald on Wednesday afternoon.

The damage to the process appears to have been done.

"This confirms our worst fears," said Lovelin, a staunch dam defender. "This issue will not be decided on science and the economics, ... this issue will be based on politics."

Bosse, whose rivers group strongly advocates dam breaching, thinks no better of the Corps' ability to be impartial. He said the agency has an institutional bias in favor of the salmon-killing dams it built and it was "totally appropriate" for a civilian official to step in.

"The Corps was acting like a rogue agency," he said. "It had crawled out to the end of a dead branch without the support from the other federal agencies. It needed to be reined in."

The incident likely will haunt whatever decision is finally made on the dams - and Hastings isn't about to let the issue die. The House Resources Committee is holding a field hearing about salmon recovery April 27 in Pasco, and Hastings will try to raise the question then.

"You wonder why people have a distrust of the federal government," he said. "I think what it points to in many respects is that there are some who want to find solutions to the problems, and there is clearly evidence now of people who don't want any solutions. They want a political issue."

Mike Lee
Corps Reportedly Urged to Pull Dam Recommendation
Tri-City Herald, April 20, 2000

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