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Second in a series of Big River articles on the Army Corps Navigation Study.

What is the Corps’ Job?

By Reggie McLeod
From Big River April 2000

Scrutiny and criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers has increased steadily since details of a whistleblower’s claims became public in February. The National Science Foundation will review the Corps’ Upper Mississippi River, Illinois Waterway Navigation System Feasibility Study (Navigation Study). The Pentagon is investigating how the study was conducted. The Office of Special Counsel has found sufficient cause to proceed with the whistleblower suit. (Last year the office investigated only 15 of the 400 complaints it received.) In March the Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation ranked expansion of the Mississippi River lock-and-dam system as the third most wasteful Corps pork barrel project.

Much of the Corps’ current work is repairing environmental damage caused by earlier Corps projects. These repairs often cost more than the original project and involve another massive layer of construction. One Corps study proposed spending $7.8 billion to save the Everglades, which are disappearing because an earlier Corps project drained land to create new orange groves. The repairs call for massive pumps and underground water storage, rather than returning the orange groves to their previous state.

Donald C. Sweeney, the Corps economist who accused the Corps of fabricating economic data to justify expanding the lock-and-dam system, also said the Corps has set out to increase its funding by $100 million a year.

We need to step back and look at the big picture. Could we move grain to New Orleans more cheaply without the lock-and-dam system? Could we gain more economic advantage by processing the corn in the Midwest? If the shippers had to pay for the entire system without a tax subsidy, what would they do?

The Army Corps of Engineers was originally created to assist with military operations, such as building roads and bridges in theaters of war. Today the Corps performs military operations; conducts economic studies; builds massive domestic projects; conducts transportation studies; regulates water resources; issues construction permits; and builds environmental repair projects. Maybe the Corps would be more effective if it focused on its military responsibilities and turned over its other responsibilities to the Department of Transportation, Department of the Interior, university researchers, General Accounting Office and other organizations.

Unfortunately the current scandal will cast many honest, hard working Corps employees in a bad light. In fact, Sweeney’s affidavit recounts how he and other economists working for the Corps resisted pressure from higher ups to fudge economic data.

Ultimate responsibility for the scandal rests with Congress. Reportedly, many people in the Corps were unhappy with the way Congress set up the study in 1992. And Congress probably did what it did to boost campaign contributions from the large grain exporters and shippers.

The whole mess highlights an array of problems, but the biggest problem was caused by Congress creating the huge, grab-bag agency that the Army Corps of Engineers has become.

Reggie McLeod is editor and publisher of Big River, an independent magazine about the Upper Mississippi River.

Copyright 2000, Big River

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