A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that it was too late to stop the $1.8 billion Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway even though it acknowledged the Army Corps of Engineers had expanded the project beyond the size authorized by Congress.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge who refused to decide whether the corps violated the law -- ruling only that the challenge should have been filed earlier.

In upholding U.S. District Court Judge William Keady of Greenville, Miss., the 5th Circuit said he had decided that "the day for battle on the authorization issue had come and gone and that the question should now be laid to rest unheard.

"Finding his factual premises supported by the record and his conclusions of law correct, we affirm his judgment."

The Environmental Defense Fund Inc. and others sued the corps because the secretary of the Army in 1967 decided that a canal 170 feet wide was to narrow, and changed it to 300 feet -- vastly increasing expense and work.

The project will connect the Tennessee, Tombigbee and Warrier rivers with canals to provide a 232-mile waterway through Mississippi and Alabama ending in the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile.