Army Corps Suspending Work on 150 Water Projects


Decision is Unprecedented Response to Criticism

By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 30, 2002; 2:14 PM

The Army Corps of Engineers is suspending work on about 150 congressionally approved water projects to review the economics used
to justify them, an unprecedented response to criticism of Corps analyses inside and outside the Bush administration.

Maj. Gen. Robert H. Griffin, director of the Corps civil works program, announced that the Corps will immediately "pause" work on
billions of dollars worth of active public works projects that are not yet under construction. Griffin said any project with a pre-1999 economic analysis will need a new analysis before it can proceed. The Corps will also review newer projects where questions about economics, engineering or the environment "may have resulted in significant changes in project justification or support."

The Corps will not provide a list of affected projects until the end of the week, but sources said they will include scores of the agency's
most controversial efforts to build levees and pumps for flood control, dredge rivers and ports for navigation, and pump sand onto beaches for recreation. Corps spokesman Homer Perkins said he assumed the list would include most of the projects highlighted in a Washington Post series in 2000, from a $165 million flood-control pump in the Mississippi Delta to a $690 million widening of a New Orleans barge canal. An analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense found $8.1 billion worth of projects with economic analyses from before 1992.

"This action is part of a more comprehensive initiative to ensure that Corps projects are a sound investment for our nation and are proposed
in an environmentally sustainable way," Griffin said. "It is essential that Corps projects keep up with the pace of change."

Environmentalists and fiscal conservatives hailed the announcement, saying the Corps finally seems to be acknowledging the problems they
have complained about for years. In December 2000, even an internal Pentagon investigation concluded that Corps studies were tainted by a deep institutional bias toward approving large-scale construction projects the agency would then get to build itself.

"The pressure has been building, and it looks like the dam is starting to break," exclaimed David Conrad of the National Wildlife Federation. "This is really good news."

The critics did warn that the Corps may be trying to create an illusion of action to prevent a growing cadre of would-be reformers from taking real action. President Bush's budget called for deep cuts and major changes at the Corps, and a congressional Corps Reform Caucus formed in 2000 has built momentum for legislation to overhaul the agency. In March, Bush budget director Mitchell Daniels Jr. helped engineer the ouster of Corps civilian chief Michael Parker, who had complained publicly about the proposed budget cuts.

The Corps had suspended two projects highlighted in the Post--a deepening of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and a study of billion-dollar lock expansions on the Mississippi River--but then it restarted the Mississippi study. As late as this month, Gen. Robert Flowers, the Corps military commander, had fiercely defended his agency's analyses in a meeting with Post editors, saying he believed the Corps was more reliable than any independent reviewer.

But last week, Griffin suspended a $311 million deepening of the Delaware River, citing criticism of its economic analysis from the General Accounting Office. Sources said the new review will also include a $127 million Dallas flood-control project attacked by Daniels, a $196 million Columbia River deepening challenged by The Oregonian newspaper, and a $122 million Houston flood-control project flagged by Corps officials themselves.

Last week, Steve Ellis, director of water resources for Taxpayers for Common Sense, compared the freeze of the Delaware River project to putting sour milk back in a refrigerator. He says the same goes for the projects suspended today: if the Corps doesn't throw them out for good, they're still going to be sour when they come out of the fridge.

"The devil's in the details," said Steve Ellis, director of water resources for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. It sounds like the Corps is admitting it has a problem."

But the review could run into problems in Congress, where members have always enjoyed steering Corps water projects toward their districts. "This is kicking us where it hurts," one staffer joked. Parker's ouster provoked a firestorm of outrage on Capitol Hill; one House Democrat recommended he should get a tickertape parade for pushing for more money for the Corps. Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist for communities with beach projects, said Congress will not be happy if the reviews cause delays and cost overruns to projects it has already approved.

"It all depends how much review is required," Marlowe said. "It's a good idea for the Corps to be diligent about its economics. It's good
damage control, and it's good quality control as well. The question is: What's the next step?"

In his statement, Griffin described the action as a "limited review," saying that some projects will proceed quickly, while others may require more serious review. He said that "Corps projects across the nation protect lives and property, improve our quality of life and ensure and enhance the nation's environment, economic prosperity and national defense."

But the Corps Reform Caucus has argued that the agency wildly overstates those benefits, while downplaying the costs to taxpayers
and the environment. Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, recently filed a sweeping bill to revamp the Corps, co-sponsored by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.). He said today's announcement represents a real response to his concerns with the Corps.

"Ensuring fiscal responsibility and defensible scientific review in the Corps decision-making process is a long-overdue necessity," Smith
said.

2002 The Washington Post Company