Reform efforts meeting with only small success

WASHINGTON - Longtime critics of the Army Corps of Engineers thought lawmakers would flock to their cause after allegations that top agency officials rigged data to favor costly construction on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Nearly a half-year later, however, their goal of overhauling the way major corps projects are approved remains elusive.

''There doesn't seem to be any real effort in Washington to fix things,'' said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

While the corps' reputation has taken a hit from allegations, the fight for reform is having to overcome the cozy relationship between Congress and an agency responsible for projects that are popular in lawmakers' districts.

The corps oversees a $4 billion public works portfolio, mostly for commercial waterway navigation and flood control.

In February, corps economist Donald Sweeney alleged in an affidavit filed with the federal Office of Special Counsel that corps officials had altered a study to make it appear that the $1 billion cost of doubling the length of seven barge locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers would be justified by the economic benefits.

Corps officials have denied any wrongdoing.

While the study is not expected to be completed until later this year, its initial conclusions favor the construction that politically connected agribusiness companies are pushing.

The charges prompted investigations by the Army's inspector general and the National Academy of Sciences, both of which continue. Some lawmakers also have asked for reviews.

Just before Congress adjourned for its August recess, three House Democrats introduced legislation that would require independent review of the corps' largest projects, increase public participation and add environmental safeguards.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also sponsored legislation to create a commission to investigate the agency and review privatizing some of its functions.

''It's time to let the sun shine in ... early on in the process so that some of the integrity and the trustworthiness of these projects can be restored,'' said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who sponsored the House bill with Democratic Reps. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.

Their proposal mirrors changes sought by environmental groups, including putting environmental concerns on par with economic benefits as projects are considered.

These groups lament that corps construction, such as locks and dams, often changes the natural flow of waterways and destroys fragile bird and fish habitats. They fear more large-scale projects would further endanger valuable ecosystems.

The House version of legislation authorizing corps projects is still being written, but several lawmakers said it would contain portions of the Kind bill. Those include a 3-year tryout of independent review - limited to five projects - and a ban on projects that cause environmental damage too costly to fix.

The Corps declined to comment on pending legislation.

The president of MARC 2000, an industry coalition pressing for the lock expansions, said the project approval process already is too long. Christopher Brescia also said more review would further delay improvements needed to keep down transportation costs low and help Midwestern grain compete worldwide.

The Senate version of the authorization bill contains no reform language. Also in the Senate, environmentalists were put on the defensive when GOP Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Appropriations Committee chairman, and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Budget Committee chairman, moved to block any Clinton administration efforts to increase civilian control over the agency.

That restriction eventually was dropped, but the senators had made their point that such reforms should not go forward without input from Capitol Hill.

Despite the challenges ahead, Kind remains optimistic.

''There is a consensus developing on the Hill on reform,'' Kind said. ''I'm trying to tell people that this is not an anti-corps effort.''


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