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

Navigation Study Declared Useless

By Reggie McLeod
From Big River April 2001

It’s been a cold winter for the Army Corps of Engineers. While the National Academy of Sciences found major flaws in the Corps’ Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway Navigation System Feasibility Study, President Bush released his first budget, which cuts Corps funding and calls for its reorganization

The only good news for the Corps was that one of its employees received a major award. However, the award to Corps economist Donald Sweeney recognized him for blowing the whistle on his bosses for manipulating data in the Navigation Study.

The $50 million-plus study was launched in 1993 to consider expanding the lock-and-dam systems on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Preliminary results found justification for a billion-dollar expansion project. Sweeney accused his bosses of changing study data to make lock expansion appear feasible. Last December, a Pentagon investigation found that Corps officers pressured Sweeney and others to change study data.

Last year the Pentagon contracted with the Academy to conduct an independent study of the Corps’ Navigation Study. The Academy’s report, which was released on the last day of February, found serious flaws in the Navigation Study.

“The study’s economic analysis is sufficiently flawed that it can’t be used at all,” Carnegie Mellon University economist Lester Lave, who chaired the Academy’s committee, told the Washington Post. “The Corps needs to start over.”

The Academy found that data and assumptions used as input in the Corps’ models are flawed. It also concluded that the Navigation Study ignored less expensive measures to manage shipping traffic.

“The committee found that the feasibility study lacks a comprehensive assessment of how changes in navigation might affect economic, environmental, and social systems. For example, the study does not describe the relations between the river’s environmental resources and the substantial economies (tourism and recreation) that depend on those resources. Environmental effects of changes in barge traffic have economic implications, but these are not considered in the feasibility study,” the report said.

Many critics of the Navigation Study pointed out at its beginning that it ignores the environmental and economic costs of the existing lock-and-dam system. The Academy noted this shortcoming and pointed out that these costs need to be known before attempting to calculate the environmental costs of expanding the system.

The motive for fabricating false data is explained in the first paragraph of the report’s Executive Summary, where the Academy notes that “Congress will fund water resources projects only if a project’s benefits exceed its costs.”

At about the same time the Academy released its report, the White House asked Congress to cut the Corps’ budget by 14 percent — from $4.5 billion in 2001 to $3.9 billion in 2002.

The budget asked for Corps reforms, noting that “Serious questions have been raised about the quality, objectivity, and credibility of Corps reports on the economic and environmental feasibility of proposed water projects.”

Then on March 6 the U.S. Office of Special Counsel created a new award, the Special Counsel’s Public Servant Award, to recognize the most significant contribution made by whistleblowers. The first award recipient is Donald Sweeney, the economist with the St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers who originally led the economic part of the Navigation Study. In February 2000 he told the Special Counsel’s office that Corps bosses fudged the study data to justify expanding the lock-and-dam system.

In choosing Sweeney for the award, the Special Counsel noted that his “disclosures averted the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars, and resulted in the recognition of systemic abuses at the Army Corps of Engineers that might otherwise have gone unnoticed and unremedied. Dr. Sweeney and other federal employee whistleblowers like him deserve this special recognition because they embody the finest tradition of federal employment; their first loyalty is not to themselves or to any institution, but instead to the public they serve.”

So far, nobody has been charged for misconduct for manipulating the Navigation Study, although two of the officers named by Sweeney resigned last summer.

The Navigation Study remains on temporary hold.

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

Copyright 2001, Big River

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