Panel Calls for Reviews of Army Corps Projectsby John Heilprin, Associated Press Writer
Environmental News Network, July 26, 2002
WASHINGTON — Army Corps of Engineers planners should seek an independent review for each of their large-scale engineering projects, the National Academy of Sciences said Thursday.
The academy's report to Congress advised the secretary of the Army to create an administrative group that could decide whether the Army Corps planning studies should be reviewed internally or externally. It also said any planning studies involving high costs, controversy, a broad area or large environmental risk should be sent for an external review.
"The highest degree of credibility will be achieved if responsibility for external review is given to an organization that is independent of the Corps," said James Mitchell, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech who chaired the academy committee that wrote the report.
Congress asked for the report in the wake of whistle-blowers' allegations that Army Corps officials manufactured a case for spending $1 billion to enlarge barge locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The report was seen by environmental groups Thursday as confirming their belief the Army Corps has an institutional bias toward building huge dams and other projects.
"There are mountains of evidence that Corps projects are based on bad economics and bad science that have resulted in the needless destruction of countless rivers, wetlands and bays," said Scott Faber of Environmental Defense, an advocacy group.
"This report confirms we have the fox guarding the hen house," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "The most highly regarded scientists in the nation have eliminated any doubt that independent review is absolutely necessary to restore credibility to the Corps' project plans."
Van Putten said projects like a $165 million hydraulic pump arrangement that would affect more than 200,000 acres of wetlands in Mississippi and a $319 million prairie irrigation system in Arkansas probably wouldn't stand up to a "reality check" afforded by outside review.
Maj. Gen. Robert H. Griffin, the Army Corps' civil works director, said he viewed the report as a valuable tool deserving of careful study. "We continue to improve our planning capability," Griffin said. "The Corps also agrees with others who are calling for a more holistic watershed approach to the nation's water resource issues."
Spokesman David Hewitt defended the Army Corps against charges that it rubber stamps big projects, saying that on average "only 16 out of every 100 pass muster." He also said the Army Corps has gone through a "cultural shift" the past several decades. "There's been a change not only in the way we do business," he said, "but there's been a change to ensure that we look toward building sustainability into all that we say and do."
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