Corps catches criticism

  NATION

A national storm is swirling around the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and some say it could rattle two of the agency's most controversial projects in the Northwest: dredging the Columbia River and continuing operation of the Snake River dams. In February, The Washington Post reported that the agency rigged a $50 million economic study to justify $1 billion in improvements on the Upper Mississippi River. The agency - with a $12 billion budget and 37,000 employees - is also under fire for a secret internal campaign to fatten its size and budget in the coming years.


Members of Congress, the Pentagon and citizen groups are calling for reforms and more accountability.


"It certainly calls into question many of the projects they've done recently," says Steve Ellis, water-resources manager for Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C. His group and the National Wildlife Federation say both the Snake River dams and the Columbia River dredging project will hurt essential salmon habitat, drain millions from the Corps' budget and leave taxpayers vulnerable to lawsuits over dwindling salmon runs.


The Corps has also taken several body blows from Capitol Hill.


"We need a Corps that balances economic development and environmental protection as required by its mandate - not one that ignores environmental laws as it chooses," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in a speech last month. He thinks Congress should consider taking the Corps out of the Pentagon and placing it within the Department of the Interior for more civilian control, and he wants the agency to be subject to an investigation from an independent commission.


So far, though, the heat from Washington, D.C., has had no any effect on the Northwest river projects except for more calls for review.


"We're getting scrutiny, so that falls over into all the districts and the work we do," says Dawn Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Corps' Portland district.


Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mike Stark

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