National Academy of Sciences Confirms Need For Independent Review of Corps of Engineers' Projects

Congress must pass legislation to reform the Corps, Earthjustice says


Joan Mulhern, Ken Goldman
Esther Boykin

A new report to be released today by the National Academy of Sciences will confirm that economic and environmental studies to justify costly or controversial civil works projects conducted by the Corps of Engineers should be subject to independent review Congress requested the NAS report on the need for independent review when it passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2000.

“The case for independent review has been made in other studies and reports before, but should there be any doubt about the need for this important reform of the Corps, it should be completely laid to rest by the NAS report,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. “Before this session is over, Congress should pass legislation creating a strong independent review mechanism to ensure that Corps’ projects are based in sound science and sound economics. Congress also should adopt other proposed reforms to the Corps’ civil works program.”

“We are pleased that the National Academy has recommended independent review of the Corps’ expensive, environmentally destructive, and controversial proposed projects. That confirms what common sense dictates, and will serve the public interest well,” said Esther Boykin, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s New Orleans office. “Unfortunately, the Corps has a long track record of spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to pursue projects that destroy our nation’s water resources. Clearly, someone independent of the agency needs to keep an eye on what the Corps is doing.”

Numerous examples of costly, controversial projects that need independent review to protect the public’s interest already exist. According to Earthjustice, the Big Sunflower River and Yazoo Pumps projects in Mississippi and the Grand Prairie project in Arkansas are among the projects requiring an independent review.

· The Big Sunflower River dredging project in Mississippi will cost more than $62 million, disturb and re-suspend DDT and toxaphene contaminated sediments on the river bottom, harm the area’s rich mussel population, and destroy hundreds of acres of bottomland hardwood wetlands. On July 22, EPA wrote a letter to the Corps renewing past objections to the project and raising additional concerns about the effect the dredging would have on water quality.

· The Yazoo Pumps project in Mississippi is billed as a flood control project even though most of the projected economic benefits would go to a handful of large farmers. The project will cost more than $181 million and damage or destroy roughly 200,000 acres of wetlands. Both the EPA and US Fish and Wildlife Service have been highly critical of this project.

· The Grand Prairie project in Arkansas is a proposed $300 million irrigation project that would significantly alter the natural hydrology of the region and would affect two National Wildlife Refuges. This project also has been criticized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service

“If the Corps is objectively assessing environmental impacts, applying sound science and engineering, and not cooking the books on the cost-benefit analysis, then it has no reason to be concerned about the closer scrutiny recommended by the Academy,” added Boykin.

Four bills to reform the Army Corps of Engineers project planning and review processes have been introduced in Congress this session. Each of these bills includes independent review as a central feature of reform. Senators Robert Smith (R-NH), Russ Feingold (D-WI), John McCain (R-AZ), and Tom Daschle (D-SD) have introduced S. 1987 to protect the environment and curb tax dollar waste. Senator Feingold has also sponsored S. 646, which contains additional wetlands protection measures. In the House, Representatives Ron Kind (D-WI) and Tom Tancredo (R-CO) have introduced bills featuring independent review among other reforms (HR 1310 and HR 2353). In addition, Representatives Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and Earl Blumenaeur (D-OR) formed a bipartisan Congressional caucus for House supporters of Corps Reform.

“There is already significant momentum for Corps Reform in the Congress, and the NAS study will add even more weight to the body of evidence demonstrating that comprehensive reform of the Corps is needed now,” said Mulhern. “Congress must not let another year pass without fixing problems at the Corps that threaten the country’s natural resources and waste taxpayers money on projects that ruin the environment.”

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