An Agency of Unchecked Clout

By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2000

EAST PRAIRIE, Mo. -- The developer of a huge project to control flooding in Missouri's soggy southeastern boot-heel expects to drain 36,000 acres of wetlands along the Mississippi River. That's almost enough wetlands to cover the District of Columbia--and nearly twice as many as all of America's developers were permitted to touch last year.

The developer plans to plug a quarter-mile gap in an earthen levee to lock the river into its channel, then build two giant pumps to get rid of rain. But while the $65 million venture is being promoted as an economic lifeline for water-weary East Prairie, the developer's fine print suggests this farm town will flood almost as often after it's built.

The consensus in the Clinton administration is that this megaproject must be stopped. "An environmental debacle," says a White House aide. "Absolutely ridiculous," scoffs Bill Hartwig, a regional Fish and Wildlife Service director. "A crazy idea," agrees James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Probably the dumbest project around," says a top Environmental Protection Agency official.

The Army Corps of Engineers is part of the Clinton administration, too. It is a public works agency in the Pentagon chain of command, reporting to an assistant Army secretary. It is also an environmental agency, legally responsible for protecting the nation's dwindling wetlands--ecologically sensitive areas ranging from seasonally flooded farmland to year-round swamps. But the Corps has a different take on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project.

It's the developer.

And in many ways, this pariah of a project is par for the Corps, one of the oldest, largest and most unusual agencies in the federal government. It is an executive branch bureaucracy that takes marching orders from Congress, a military-run organization with an overwhelmingly civilian work force, an environmental regulator despised by environmentalists. The Corps has $62 billion worth of civil works projects underway--three times the federal spending on cancer research over the last decade. It has about 35,000 employees--more than the Energy, Labor and Education departments put together.

This series will explore how an agency born as a regiment in George Washington's army has built clout in the city that bears his name, and how it uses that clout to reconfigure the American landscape. A Washington Post review of Corps activities across the nation, supported by more than 1,000 interviews and tens of thousands of pages of documents, found that the agency is converting its strong congressional relationships into billions of dollars' worth of taxpayer-funded water projects, many with significant environmental costs and minimal economic benefits.

Members of Congress authorize the projects to steer federal money to their districts, and the Corps often justifies them with questionable technical studies. This pro-construction mentality has been fueled by Corps commanders, who have launched an agency-wide campaign to "seek growth opportunities," internal memos show. The result is a fragmented national network of channelized rivers and deepened ports, cobbled together by log-rolling and deal-cutting by individual lawmakers, instead of comprehensive planning by federal officials.

The East Prairie plan has the hallmarks of many of the Corps projects reviewed by The Post. It has fierce support from local residents as well as a fervent congressional advocate, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.). The Corps justified it with a distorted cost-benefit analysis--the assumptions included a 2.5 percent interest rate that dates back to the Eisenhower administration--and deflected strong objections from environmental agencies. The bulk of the project's benefits will flow to a few well-connected local farmers, but the federal rules that would have forced them to help pay for it were waived in Washington. And despite the administration's outrage, the project may soon become a reality.

Corps commanders refused scores of interview requests, under orders from Gen. Joe Ballard, the agency's recently retired chief engineer. But in written responses to questions from The Post, and in their public statements, they have called the Corps a model of public service, firmly committed to promoting economic development, newly dedicated to conserving ecosystems and federal funds as well. They describe the Corps as an apolitical military organization, simply following orders produced by the democratic process.

Earlier this year--after a whistle-blower charged that Corps officials had manipulated an economic study to justify billion-dollar lock expansions on the Mississippi River, and after leaked documents showed that senior commanders had drawn up a "Project Growth Initiative" to boost the agency's budget and expand its missions--Ballard angrily told a Senate subcommittee that the Corps is not a "rogue agency."

"I am confident that the Army Corps of Engineers is pursuing its mission with the utmost professionalism and integrity, and will continue to serve this nation well," he said.

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