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150 Water Projects Halted For Army Corps Review

By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 1, 2002; Page A02

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 indefinitely.

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 change."

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 227-year history.

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 overdue."

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.

 

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  Ward politics is the Devil's key to the soul of the city council.  It is how some council members got themselves in trouble in the past.  It is the bait that will get others in trouble in the future. 4/6/8