Corps to Cut Back Substance, Public Participation in Asian Carp Study

What’s the latest news in the fight to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes? This week in Chicago, the Army Corps of Engineers held the first of several “charrettes” to inform its work on the aquatic nuisance species prevention feasibility study, known as the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS), due to Congress at the end of 2013. According to the Corps, these charrettes will determine which control options the agency will evaluate in its final study. What’s different about this meeting? The public – including citizens and groups who have direct stakes in the matter and have been working on this issue for years – was not invited.

Over the summer, Congress passed the MAP-21 highway reauthorization in which it set a deadline for the Corps’ study of December 2013, compared to the Corps’ previous timeline of 2015. The Corps announced earlier this fall what the shorter timeframe will mean for the study: rather than speed up work that the Corps had committed to do, the new deadline will result in the agency doing less work and cutting the public meetings it had outlined. And the Corps is claiming that it will still meet Congress’ charge to produce a feasibility study setting forth options for preventing the spread of aquatic nuisance species between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes.

We politely disagree.

While the Corps has given some (albeit thin) consideration to public input to date, cutting public participation during the most critical period for the study runs directly afoul of Congress’ charge to undertake its work “in consultation with appropriate Federal, state, local, and nongovernmental entities… [.]” The Corps has suggested that consulting with its Executive Steering Committee during the charrettes is a sufficient substitute for open public meetings. While we greatly appreciate the role that the Committee members have taken – including their own extensive  engagement with the public – these members are all government bodies themselves and thus do not fully represent the interested public. Nothing in MAP-21 suggests that Congress wanted the Corps to curtail its public engagement; rather, Congress directed the Corps to expedite the study by focusing the subject of its inquiry on preventive measures like hydrological separation, without changing the Corps’ consultation obligation. When we asked the Corps at the most recent Great Lakes Commission Asian carp meeting how it intended to make public the charrette discussions and conclusions, we were given a blunt response: you’ll get this information when the December 2013 final study issues.

Nor does the study that the Corps will develop resemble the “feasibility study” that Congress required. In fact, in a meeting with NRDC and several of our colleague organizations, the GLMRIS project leads told us point blank that “the GLMRIS report is not a complete Feasibility Report.” One of the most glaring holes will be in terms of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Rather than provide a full assessment of environmental impacts associated with the prevention alternatives to inform Congress’ (or the Secretary’s) choice, the Corps will present a watered down Environmental Assessment that will compile information that the Corps already has and outline the analysis needed for a full Environmental Impact Statement. The report also will provide a lower level of engineering and design for the alternatives than typically accompanies a feasibility study. While the Corps has provided a crafty legal response as to why it’s allowed to tinker with the bounds of a feasibility study, certain members of Congress seem to disagree with this understanding, given the critiques of the Corps’ new plan by Senator Debbie Stabenow and Representative Dave Camp.

What can be done about this frustrating turn of events? First, we call upon the Corps to reopen its process to the public by making available the contents of the charrettes and providing a mechanism for public input on the final set of alternatives. Second, Congress should do whatever is in its power to move the process along – quickly revise the Corps’ duty to create a more explicit directive during the remainder of the current study period, or be prepared to either choose an option with less-than-complete information or to issue a new and detailed mandate to the Corps to guide their work after December 2013. Otherwise, we will find ourselves six years on and not much further along than we were back in 2007 when Congress initiated this process.

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