News of the Week

U.S. Senate Calls for External Reviews of Big Federal Digs

+ See all authors and affiliations

Science  28 Jul 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5786, pp. 424a-425a
DOI: 10.1126/science.313.5786.424a

For 15 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been locked in a battle over a $265 million project to make the Delaware River more accessible to larger ships. The corps, citing three favorable internal reviews, argues that the project is environmentally and economically sound, but opponents claim it would be bad for nearby wetlands—and would lose money. In 2002, the opponents gained some powerful ammunition from a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which called the planning process for the project “fraught with errors, mistakes, and miscalculations.”

Second look.

Pending legislation would require the Army Corps to get outside opinions of controversial projects, such as deepening the Delaware River with dredges.

CREDIT: CHRIS GARDNER/AP PHOTO

GAO's findings on the Delaware River project—currently stalled by funding disagreements among neighboring states—demonstrate the importance of regular external reviews, say the corps' many critics. And last week, they won a victory in the U.S. Senate, where legislators voted to require the use of expert panels to evaluate the engineering analyses, economic and environmental assumptions, and other aspects of projects in the corps' $2-billion-a-year construction portfolio. The corps oversees most major U.S. construction projects having to do with flood control and navigation.

A recent spate of high-profile failures and controversies, in addition to the Delaware River project, gave the measure momentum. Investigations by the University of California, Berkeley, and the American Society of Civil Engineers into last year's failure of levees in New Orleans, Louisiana, for example, found problems with design and construction that could have been avoided. Reviews of other major projects by GAO and the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) have uncovered technical errors, inflation of benefits, and other concerns.

The additional oversight is contained in an amendment from Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a bill that authorizes financing of corps projects. It would require external review of projects that cost more than $40 million or are controversial, or at the request of a federal agency or the governor of a state affected by an upstream project. For each review, five to nine experts would be picked by someone outside the corps but within the Secretary of the Army's office.

The panel's findings and recommendations would not be binding, but the head of the corps would be required to explain why they were ignored. And in cases that go to court, judges would be required to give equal deference to the expert panel rather than simply deferring to the corps, as is customary. “It's a stick, although not a big one,” says Melissa Samet of American Rivers, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

In the past, the corps has heeded some outside advice, says John Boland, a water resource economist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has participated in many NRC reviews of corps projects. For example, the agency revamped its restoration plans related to an expansion of locks on the Upper Mississippi River after an NRC review. But the corps rejected the major criticism that its economic analysis needed fixing, and Congress authorized the $3.7 billion project as part of the new WRDA bill.

The Senate bill (S. 728) must now be melded with one passed last year by the House of Representatives (H.R. 2864) that environmentalists view as weaker. The House version allows the chief of the corps to exempt projects from external review, does not call for judicial deference, and does not require public comments to be considered. The corps declined to comment on the pending legislation, which is expected to become law by the end of the year.

Related Content

Navigate This Article