Water Projects Halted For Army Corps Review
By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 14, 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,
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
"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