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 mounting criticism of Corps
analyses inside and outside the Bush administration.
Maj. Gen. Robert H. Griffin, civil works director of the Corps,
announced yesterday that his agency will "pause" work on
billions of dollars worth of active projects that are not yet under
construction. The move came a week after Griffin suspended a $311
million deepening of the Delaware River in response to a critique by the
General Accounting Office, and his memo yesterday cited "serious
questions in regard to the accuracy and currency . . . and the rigor of
the review process for some projects."
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. Some projects could be delayed temporarily, others
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 barge-canal widening in New Orleans to a $108 million jetty
project in North Carolina.
"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
The review could freeze a fifth of the Corps workload, an unheard-of
self-examination for one of the oldest, biggest and most embattled
federal agencies. Every presidential administration since Franklin D.
Roosevelt's has tried to rein in the Corps, but it has flourished with
help from its patrons in Congress, who have used its projects to steer
money and jobs home. Now the Corps seems to be echoing its critics, a
response to the least friendly political climate in the agency's
Griffin said the Corps will re-analyze every one of its
pre-construction projects with an economic analysis done before 1999;
Taxpayers for Common Sense recently counted $8.1 billion worth of Corps
projects with analyses from before 1992. Griffin also ordered reviews of
newer projects in which recent economic, engineering or environmental
data "may have resulted in significant changes in project
justification or support."
In 2000, the Post series detailed how the Corps has justified many
projects with skewed assumptions and overly optimistic predictions of
barge and ship traffic. E-mails from high-ranking Corps officials
revealed that they had manipulated an economic study in order to justify
a billion-dollar lock expansion project on the Mississippi River. An
internal Pentagon investigation concluded that Corps studies were
tainted by an institutional bias toward large-scale construction.
But as recently as three weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, military
commander of the Corps, was defending his agency's economics at a
meeting with Post editors, saying the Corps was more reliable and less
political than any independent reviewer. Environmentalists and fiscal
conservatives hailed yesterday's turnaround, saying the Corps is
acknowledging problems they have complained about for years.
"I'm just blown away," said National Wildlife Federation
senior vice president Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former Fish and Wildlife
Service director who frequently battled the Corps. "This is a
terrific opportunity for the Corps to turn itself around."
Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), the ranking member of the Senate
Environment and Public Works Committee and the author of a bill to
revamp the Corps, also applauded the reviews as "long
But some critics said the Corps could be creating the illusion of
action to prevent a growing cadre of would-be reformers from taking real
action. This year, President Bush's budget called for major cuts and
changes at the Corps. In March, the day after Smith filed his bill, Bush
budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. helped engineer the ouster of
Corps civilian chief Michael Parker, who had complained publicly about
the budget cuts.
"Acknowledging you have a problem is the first step toward
solving it," said Rebecca R. Wodder, president of the environmental
advocacy group American Rivers, whose recent list of the nation's most
endangered rivers blamed the Corps for most of them. "But we remain
convinced that Congress will have to intervene."
The review still could run into problems in Congress, where
Corps-friendly members were outraged by Parker's ouster. "This is
kicking us where it hurts," one staffer joked. Several Corps
supporters on the Hill declined to comment until they could see the list
of projects, but Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist for communities with beach
projects, predicted that Congress will not want delays and cost overruns
in projects it has already approved.
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 said the same goes for most
projects suspended yesterday: If the Corps doesn't throw them out,
they're still going to be sour when they come out of the fridge.