Coalition wants greener Corps of Engineers
National environmental and taxpayer groups are ramping up a campaign to reform the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
They are supporting legislation that would require the corps to balance environmental restoration with economic benefits on public works projects such as the deepening of the Columbia River shipping channel.
A coalition of 60 organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation and Taxpayers for Common Sense, has banded together to form the Corps Reform Network. They met in Portland a week ago to map out their strategy when Congress convenes next month.
A drumbeat of discord has enveloped the corps in recent years. The Bush administration has clamped down on the agency's budget. And environmental groups have expanded from battling corps projects one at a time to waging an all-out campaign against the corps itself.
Corps representatives counter that environmental restoration is a priority. They point out that the corps has spent millions of dollars on projects designed for no purpose other than environmental restoration. One example is a $40 million dam retrofit that will allow cool water to flow into the McKenzie River from the depths of Cougar Reservoir east of Springfield, Ore.
"That is a prime example of how this project was justified based on environmental benefits, not economic benefits," said Matt Rabe, a corps spokesman in Portland.
But environmental groups contend that the corps' dredging, diking and damming projects aren't worth the harm to the environment or the cost to taxpayers.
Two years ago, the agency was rocked by accusations that it inflated projected benefits to justify navigation improvements along the upper Mississippi River. Lawmakers responded earlier this year by introducing a pair of bills establishing independent review panels for all corps projects, among other provisions.
Though the legislation faces uncertain prospects with a new Congress, the Corps Reform Network is fishing for sponsors in the new year.
A corps spokesman in Washington, D.C., would not comment on pending legislation, but he noted that the corps has adapted over a history that predates the founding of the Republic.
"We're not afraid of change, if the change being undertaken is something that better meets our mission to the nation and in serving the armed forces," said Lt. Col. Gene Pawlik.
"The corps, in its 200-year history, has changed many times based on the direction it's been given by the president and based on the direction it's been given by the Congress."
Since 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized the chief of engineers to build fortifications at Bunker Hill near Boston, Congress has relied on the corps to construct projects to benefit the military and the public. But critics view the corps as too easily manipulated by pork-barrel politics embarking on projects that provide narrow economic benefits to certain areas while harming the environment and draining the U.S. treasury.
Such is the case with the Columbia River channel-deepening proposal, critics say.
Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service have called a proposal to deepen the channel from 40 to 43 feet for bigger modern ships an "incremental insult to an estuarine system that has been grossly altered by previous dredging."
The corps and business interests contend that the project is necessary to maintain the economic viability of ports 100 miles upriver, including those in Portland and Vancouver. The largest container ships currently cannot enter or leave the ports fully loaded because the river channel is too shallow.
Environmental groups contend that the corps should first consider the cumulative harm inflicted on the environment by past dredging, dam-building and diking in the Columbia River basin.
"These systematic effects need to be taken into account and managed accordingly," said Mark Beorkrem, program consultant with the Mississippi River Basin Alliance.
Beorkrem and others acknowledge that they face an uphill battle in pushing through fundamental changes to the corps' centuries-long mission as a civil works organization. It is, after all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Not the Corps of Biologists.
"Our long-term vision is the corps is capable of bringing together biology and become a real force for resource restoration and protection," said Kate Costenbader, coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation.
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