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Army Halts Study of Projects on Mississippi River

March 01, 2001|From The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Army Corps of Engineers has temporarily suspended its eight-year, $60-million study of Mississippi River construction projects, a response to an independent report released Wednesday detailing serious flaws with the agency's economic and environmental analyses.

The National Academy of Sciences report concludes that the study was marred by inaccurate projections and inappropriate methodologies. It urges the Corps to consider far less costly and damaging ways to ease barge traffic before considering billion-dollar lock expansions.

It comes just two months after an even tougher report by the Army inspector general, who found that Corps officers had manipulated the study to justify massive lock expansions, and that the agency has a systemic bias toward large-scale construction.

And there was more bad news Wednesday for the Corps in President Bush's budget blueprint, which singled out the public works agency for a 14% cut and pledged to "redirect funds away from ongoing projects that are not economically justified, are environmentally damaging, or violate other established policies."

Even the agency's longtime friends in Congress have begun criticizing the Corps, most recently after the agency's military commander, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, testified Tuesday about the Mississippi River study at a Senate hearing.

Flowers defended his agency at the hearing, saying he is "proud of our very disciplined planning process." But the Corps has put the study on hold until at least June, and is restructuring its management team. The agency's final conclusions, originally due in 1999, are now scheduled for July 2002.

Environmentalists and taxpayer activists who have blasted the most expensive and extensive study in Corps history said Wednesday they were delighted with the 115-page academy review.

"In polite academic language, the academy has given the Corps an F," said Environmental Defense senior attorney Tim Searchinger, who represents Corps economist Donald Sweeney.

The academy report praises the Corps for making "important improvements," many pioneered by Sweeney, to its economic models. Otherwise, the panel came down hard. It complains that the Corps oversimplified Sweeney's model, overestimated barge traffic, used inaccurate assumptions rather than actual data and shortchanged environmental concerns. And it strongly recommends that the Corps stop ignoring "nonstructural" methods to relieve barge congestion, including some as simple as barge tolls, better scheduling and better equipment for hooking barges together.

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