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Dam Plans Withheld, Paper Says

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, April 20, 2000

Corps ordered to suppress recommendation against breaching Snake dams, paper reports

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ordered to suppress a recommendation to leave Snake River dams intact, a Washington, D.C., newspaper reported Wednesday.

The Washington Times cited internal corps memos as evidence that the agency was prepared last year to recommend against breaching the four dams. Army Secretary Louis Caldera and his undersecretary ordered the agency to delete that recommendation from a $20 million study, the newspaper reported.

The corps did little Wednesday to refute the story about the four Eastern Washington dams. Northwest corps officials said they have been ordered not to discuss the Times' story, and to refer calls to the Department of Army.

An Army spokesman in Washington, D.C., offered only vague answers to questions about the story. However, a senior Army official disputed allegations that the agency was politically motivated in withholding a recommendation.

"None of these decisions are in any way related to any political factors," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Clinton administration foes are citing the story as evidence of political meddling in a contentious issue. The administration raised suspicions earlier this month by acknowledging that a recommendation about the dams -- first expected in 1999 -- probably won't come until after a new president takes office.

Federal agencies say the delay is the result of conflicting scientific reports about whether breaching the dams would restore endangered runs of salmon. Critics say Democrats don't want to face the issue before the presidential election in November.

In a press release Wednesday, Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., called the allegations reported by the Times "an apparent cover-up by White House officials."

"What little credibility the Clinton-Gore White House had over whether to breach the four Snake River dams has seriously been undermined," Gorton said.

Environmental groups had a different take on the story.

"The real scandal is that the Army corps wanted to ... offer a preferred alternative that flies in the face of science," said Chris Zimmer, spokesman for Save Our Wild Salmon.

A majority of biologists who have studied the issue concluded that breaching earthen portions of the dams to let the Snake River run unimpeded is more likely to preserve salmon than any other option. More than 200 scientists last year signed a letter to President Clinton stating that nothing short of breaching could save the fish.

However, a study for the National Marine Fisheries Service said the dams and the fish may both be saved if habitat is improved and the region is willing to endure severe restrictions on the way it uses land and water.

During hearings in 1997 and 1998, corps officials repeatedly said the agency would include a recommendation about the dams in a draft environmental impact statement about the lower Snake River. Before releasing the document last year, the agency backed away from that pledge, citing inconclusive science and a desire to first gather public comments.

Corps officials now say a dam recommendation will be part of a study update that likely won't be released until after the November election.

A Times reporter said Wednesday that the story about the dams was based on documents leaked to the newspaper. The reporter declined to release those documents to The Spokesman-Review, saying he was concerned about protecting the confidentiality of his source.

According to Wednesday's Times report, the corps planned an Oct. 14, 1999, press conference to release its findings that the dams should stay.

The Times cited an Oct. 8 internal memo from an unnamed corps deputy commander that read: "Received phone call from Secretary Caldera directing that we not hold our planned 14 October meeting and that nothing concerning a preferred alternative be announced."

The newspaper reported that assistant Army secretary for civil works Joseph Westphal later ordered that the corps delete its recommendation from the draft environmental impact statement. Chapters containing the recommendation "should be reserved for future use," Westphal wrote in a memo cited by the Times.

Dan Hansen
Dam Plans Withheld, Paper Says
Spokesman Review, April 20, 2000

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