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ISSUE SUMMARY: ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS AGENCY REFORM
REVISION DATE: 9/1/02

 1.0  BACKGROUND:

The Army Corps of Engineers (ACE or simply “the Corps”) is a unique Federal agency (located within the Department of Defense) having two main areas of responsibility:

  • Military Construction:Designing and managing the construction of military facilities for the Army and Air Force (and providing construction management support to other Defense agencies).
  • Civic (Public) Works:Planning, designing, building and operating water resources-related and other civil/public works projects and facilities (principally for navigation and flood control).

Other key environmentally-related duties of the Corps include:

  • Management/oversight of environmental cleanup activitiesat contaminated military and Dept. of Energy sites/facilities. Professional live streaming for churches.
  • Serving as the lead agency for the wetlands regulatory programestablished under the Clean Water Act, which requires developers and others wanting to fill wetlands to seek a permit from the Corps (see the Issue Summary for “Wetlands” for further program details).

Efforts aimed at reforming the Corps have focused mainly on their Civic Works program, specifically in regards to the construction projects selected by the Corps that appear to possess dubious public benefits – projects which critics and observers say (and some politicians admit) represent classic political “pork barrel” projects. In addition, the Corps has been subject to considerable criticism for its handling of the federal wetlands permitting program, which critics charge has become nothing more than a “rubber-stamp” for developers and others seeking to fill in wetlands.


2.0  FACTS AND FIGURES – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

  • Agency Structure/Staffing: Although almost entirely civilian in overall staff (only about 600 of its 35,000 employees– less than 2% – are military), military personnel run the Corps – its overall head (known as the Chief of Engineers) and the heads of the Corps 8 geographically-based Divisions and 41 subordinate Districts are all military. The Civic Works program of the Corps reports – though the Chief of Engineers – to a civilian Assistant Army Secretary (a politically appointed position).
  • Land/Waterways Overseen: 12 million acres of land; 12,000 miles of waterways.
  • Facilities Overseen: 8,500 miles of flood-control levees; 300 deep draft ports; 275 river locks; 75 hydropower plants (producing 1/4 of all the hydropower in the U.S.); and 4,400 recreation sites.
  • Civil Works Budget (FY2000): $4.1 billion, broken down as follows: $1.4 billion for construction projects (34%); $1.8 billion for operations and maintenance of existing facilities (44%);  $0.3 billion for Mississippi River-related flood control (7%); $0.6 billion for miscellaneous other work (15%).
  • Typical Civil Works Projects Undertaken (with more than $100 billion worth undertaken in its history):

o        Navigation Projects (for inland waterways, ports and harbors): River deepening; channel widening; jetty construction; lock expansion; dam operations; dredged material disposal.

o        Flood Control Projects: Dams and related hydropower facilities construction and operation; levee construction; river channelization; large-scale pumping systems; costal protection (projects such as beach stabilization and sand replenishment)

  • Current (FY02) Backlog of Civil Works Projects: 500+ active, congressionally-authorized projects with a total projected federal cost of $44 billion (an additional 800 congressionally-authorized projects are considered inactive)


3.0  A CLOSER LOOK:

While seemingly an obscure federal agency, the Corps’ past and present impact – especially from an environmental perspective – has been quite significant, both as a result of its civil works projects (which has resulted in construction of some $100 billion worth of dams, locks and other water resource-related facilities) as well as its handling of the federal wetlands “dredge and fill” regulatory program. Unfortunately, from an environmental perspective, that impact has been overwhelmingly viewed in negative terms, especially by environmentalists.

What has really gotten the Corps into hot water, however, is its continued penchant for aggressively pushing large and costly construction projects with dubious public benefits (in fact, as early as 1836, the House Ways and Means Committee was complaining about “useless” and “fallacious” Corps projects). The latest flare-up has its roots in a continuing series of investigative reporting by Michael Grunwald of the Washington Post (see The Washington Post’s Corps of Engineers Page for details) – a brief chronological list of highlights:

  • 1/00: A two-part series in thePost (entitled “Corps Taming of Waterways Doesn’t Pay Off”) examines extensive (and expensive) Corps river channeling efforts made along the Missouri River and elsewhere based on lofty barge traffic projections that never materialized.
  • 2/00: APost story reveals that the military commanders of the Corps launched a detailed, behind-the-scenes campaign (called the “Program Growth Initiative”) to boost the agency’s $4 billion civil works budget by more than 50% by 2005, without the knowledge of the civilian Assistant Army Secretary to whom the Corps directly reports to on paper.
  • 9/00: An extensive five-part investigative report into Corps activities is published in thePost, examining both the Corps civil works projects and its wetlands regulatory program. The series finds 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” and points to 6 particularly controversial projects. It also found that the Corps wetlands regulatory program was “mostly just a ‘permitting’ program, approving well over 99% of developers requests to drain, dredge and fill wetlands, consistently finding that even sensitive projects would have negligible impacts.”

Added to this mix was a series of scathing reports from government sources on the economic analyses carried out by the Corps, including:

  • 12/7/00: In response to Corps whistleblower Donald Sweeney’s allegations (made in 2/00), a Pentagon investigation concludes that 3 top officials of the Corps did in fact manipulate an economic study in an effort to justify a $1 billion set of projects. The report goes further, challenging the overall ability of the Corps to conduct honest analyses of projects it hopes to build, noting a “widespread perception of bias among the Corps employees interviewed,” including almost every Corps economist interviewed (indeed, even the agency’s retired chief economist called Corps studies “corrupt”).
  • 3/01/02: A National Academy of Sciences report concludes that the economic study at the heart of Corps whistleblower Donald Sweeney allegations is “sufficiently flawed that it can’t be used at all,” due to inaccurate projections and inappropriate methodologies.
  • 6/11/02: The General Accounting Office issues a report on the Corps Delaware River deepening project – entitled “Comprehensive Reanalysis Needed,” it documents a series of “miscalculations, invalid assumptions and outdated information” in the Corps’ economic justification for the project, including overestimating the project’s economic benefits by some 300%.

From a review of the material cited above, the roots of the problems seen appear to arise out of several factors that have combined to produce what some see as a “rogue agency” in the Corps, namely:

  • Having a mutually-beneficial relationship with Congress:As a construction agency, the Corps wants to build more and Congress is more than eager to please, as local Corps projects offer Congressmen jobs, contracts and other benefits for their constituents and campaign contributors, as well as ribbon-cutting opportunities. Specific projects typically are developed within the Corps at the local District level, often in close consultation with corresponding congressional members. Congress then “authorizes” an extensive list of new Corps projects every two years (although only a portion of these will actually be undertaken, due to budget constraints and/or whether they are determined – by the Corps itself – to be “economically justified,” defined as offering at least as much in economic benefits as in cost).
  • Being effectively outside the control of the executive branch:While reporting on paper to a politically-appointed Assistant Secretary of the Army, the Corps effectively has answered only to Congress, which has, in return, helped to rebuff past reform efforts mounted by previous Presidential Administrations. The only realistic control the President has is in terms of the overall Corps budget; however, final Corps appropriations have historically exceeded that requested by an Administration, having been “beefed up” by Congress. Furthermore, the President lacks effective veto power on specific Corps projects.
  • Maintaining an inherent potential conflict of interest.Corps project evaluations are handled internally, without any routine outside review or approval. Thus, the Corps evaluates projects they have developed to begin with and will get to build – assuming funding is provided – if the evaluation is positive – certainly the appearance of an internal conflict of interest, at the very least.
  • Having a historical reputation for aggressiveness combined with arrogance,typically attributed to the military leadership style and further emboldened by the protection from critics offered by Congress. This has led most observers to doubt that the Corps could ever reform itself on its own. For recent proof, critics cite a 4/02 “stand-down” review by the Corps of some 170 of its projects, citing “serious questions in regard to their accuracy and currency . . . and the rigor of the review process.” After just three weeks, however, the Corps cleared the bulk of them, with only 8 held over for further review as a result of the initial review, with none of those 8 being projects considered particularly controversial by outsiders. Corps critics immediately denounced the well-publicized self-examination as a “farce,” noting that the same Corps officials who oversaw the original analyses were responsible for the reviews, and that several Bush administration officials with Corps responsibilities were never consulted.

In light of these events, proposed reform efforts offered span a wide range. The Clinton Administration attempted a series of basic management reforms in 3/00 under which:

  • The Corps would be formally held accountable to the administration’s appointees in the Pentagon.
  • Military commanders would be compelled to share information with their civilian bosses.
  • The Corps would be barred from lobbying Congress without administration approval.
  • The appointed Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works would have the final say on Corps decisions.

(One week after announcing the reforms, however, they were withdrawn in the face of intense Congressional opposition.)

Other current suggestions within Congress include:

  • Requiring outside, independent reviews of Corps’ technical studies.
  • Opening up public access to the Corps’ project analyses.
  • Raising the required economic benefit-to-cost threshold on projects from its current 1-1 ratio to some higher level in an attempt to screen out marginal projects.
  • Establishing a de-authorization procedure to formally eliminate inactive or undesirable projects.
  • Establishing economic development and environmental protection/restoration as co-equal goals for Corps projects.
  • Privatizing some of the Corps functions.
  • Transferring the agency to the Interior Department (i.e., out of military hands).

(The latter two proposals, while highly unlikely to be approved, come from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle [D-SD].)

Finally, public interest groups have their own opinions on reforming the Corps – see “Key Reports” below.

In addition to the above specific concerns, questions have arisen in regards to the Corps basic mission and focus, specifically regarding the Corps:

  • Existing project backlog– both of “active” projects (with an associated ultimate federal cost of $44 billion) and of deferred maintenance of existing structures (estimated at around $2 billion). (Regarding the construction backlog, the Bush Administration has proposed that the Corps not start new projects and instead concentrate its resources only on existing projects identified as “high priority.” Environmentalists and fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, are focused on terminating specific projects they have identified as the most wasteful and/or environmentally damaging.)
  • Expanded mission basebeyond traditional navigation and flood control projects into both environmental restoration projects (most notably the controversial Corps-led Florida Everglades Restoration project) and a range of other new public projects (including building schools, jails and water and wastewater treatment plants). (The Bush Administration believes that while environmental restoration is an appropriate additional work area for the Corps, the other new types of public projects being pursued by the Corps is not. Environmentalists, on the other hand, worry about Corps efforts on environmental restoration projects, given its previous track record and general militaristic – “conquering Nature” – mentality.)

A final area of concern for environmentalists – though not likely part of any enacted reform effort – revolves around the Corps continuing to be the lead agency for federal wetlands regulation. As noted in the Washington Postpiece entitled “Reluctant Regulators,” the Corps is the nation’s unlikeliest regulatory agency – particularly for wetlands – given that it is, after all, a construction agency that has altered more wetlands through its projects than any other developer in history. And given the Corps previously noted documented history of virtually rubber-stamping all permit applications, environmentalists would like to seek substantial reforms instituted in the program, including potentially moving primary responsibility for wetlands regulation to another agency, targeting the more naturally-suited Environmental Protection Agency, which already plays a secondary role in administering the program (see the “Wetlands” Issue Summary for more details).