Rotten to the Corps: Public Reviews Targeted in New Bill

It has to be an early April Fools Day joke.

The Army Corps of Engineers has, at best, a checkered past when it comes to project designs that harm the environment. "Boondoggle" is almost synonymous with the Corps, as a simple google search would remind Congressional staff. Their shenanigans have been covered by publications from The Economist to Mother Jones. Oh, and lest you think the Corps is only infamous for costly mistakes domestically, check this out.

And the Mother Jones link is actually to an article by Michael Grunwald of Time Magazine, who has written a book, The Swamp, about his beloved Florida and the widespread damage the Corps wreaked on the Everglades in an effort to "tame" it. Now much of this beautiful natural resource has been eaten up by suburban sprawl and sugar plantations.

The respected group Taxpayers for Common Sense described the Corps this way in its 2011 Green Scissors report:

The Army Corps of Engineers has been a lever pulled by lawmakers to bring money to their home districts for nearly two centuries. The agency constructs water resource projects dealing with navigation, flood and storm damage reduction, and environmental restoration. Yet in many cases these projects serve little to no national interest, are not economically justified, have serious negative environmental impacts and are based more on political power than national priority.

Too often Corps projects are both economically and environmentally wasteful. Over the last several years, Corps projects have been challenged by the National Academy of Science, Government Accountability Office and even the U.S. Army Inspector General. With a focus on structural solutions like dams and levees, and a parochial bias that often inhibits regional or watershed planning, the Corps often ignores alternatives less costly for taxpayers and the environment. After Hurricane Katrina, the nation saw a glaring example of Corps failures in flood control and how Corps projects led to increased development in high risk areas.

In that report, Taxpayers notes that 9 Corps boondoggles could be canceled, saving you and me and other taxpayers about $5.6 billion.

So it's with dismay that I read that this week two Senators -- Boxer and Vitter, of the Environment and Public Works Committee -- have included provisions aimed at reducing the amount of scrutiny Corps projects receive in their draft Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the big bill that authorizes funding for the Corps! Say what?

These provisions place time and cost limits on reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act. They put heat on frontline reviewers by allowing a delay in project approval to be kicked upstairs to political appointees. And last but not least, they impose financial penalties if a decision takes too long -- $10,000-20,000 a week!*

I don't know about you, but if I hear of a distant federal agency wanting to bulldoze or steamroll someplace near my neighborhood -- especially if it's an agency that has historically been as ham-handed as the Corps -- I want adequate time and help to scrutinize and comment on the proposal! But a couple of Senators have decided that what matters more is making it easier for the Corps to get the 'dozers moving.

These provisions are a rotten joke, and they don't belong in WRDA. They must be stripped out before they spur more damage.

* To be fair, this penalty appears to transfer, not remove, funding within or between agencies so reviewers get an injection of new money to help finish their work. However, this section is written so it's unclear who loses and who gets the money exactly. I would expect bosses, who may be losing money, could put Cheney-type pressure on environmental analysis to go along to get along – and not cut the boss’s budget. In addition (speaking as someone who reviewed projects years ago, to determine air quality impacts), it is hard to see how this would help. If a project is delayed due to some analytical issue or impasse, I can't help but see stealing $20,000 from my boss and throwing it at reviewers with direction to spend it in a week as punitive and unlikely to be terribly effective.

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