U.S. Senate Votes to Require Peer Review of Army Corps Projects

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 19, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate today agreed to require independent peer review of costly and controversial U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' flood control and navigation projects.

Proponents said the Army Corps is in dire need of reform and pointed to last year's levee failures in New Orleans as only the latest example of why the agency requires increased oversight.

"The events of New Orleans cry out for independent review and outside scrutiny," said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, who added that the Army Corps has a "lousy track record when it comes to project reviews."

The measure, cosponsored by McCain and Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, requires independent review of the economic and environmental impact of projects costing more than $40 million.


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepare a form wall for a section of the new 9th Ward Levee in New Orleans in preparation for pouring cement. The levee walls are being strengthened to withstand category 4 hurricanes after Katrina and Rita repeatedly flooded the city last summer. March 3, 2006. (Photo by Marvin Nauman courtesy FEMA)
Such reviews can also be required if requested by the governor of an affected state, if the Secretary of the Army determines that the project is controversial, or if a federal agency finds a project will have a significant adverse impact.

The Senate voted 54-46 to add the requirement to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The bill authorizes some $12 billion for more than 100 Army Corps' navigation and flood control projects, in addition to funding for environmental restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay, Florida Everglades, the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast.

Controversy over how to reform the Army Corps dominated Wednesday's debate on the bill, which passed by a voice vote.

Feingold cited "more than a decade of reports" from experts including the National Academy of Sciences, the Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Army Inspector General that have concluded the Corps' project planning process is severely lacking.

"There are fundamental problems with the Corps," Feingold said. "We just want to get this agency back on track to serve the interests of all Americans."

The amendment also establishes an outside safety assurance review for critical flood damage reduction projects to better provide for the public safety.


After Hurricane Katrina, a helicopter drops sandbags into the break in a New Orleans levee to try and stop the flow of water into residential areas. September 7, 2005 (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino courtesy FEMA)
"The New Orleans situation is exhibit A for the kinds of problems that can occur if we don't have appropriate review of these projects," said Feingold, who noted that the agency ignored problems with the New Orleans levees for years before the structures tragically failed after Hurricane Katrina.

Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, said the provision "provides the strong, truly independent, peer review that is needed to ensure the taxpayer dollars are being spent on projects that have the upmost scrutiny."

Critics agreed that the Corps should be reined in, but said the amendment goes too far and could cause needless delays because it calls for review at the end of the planning process.

"Any mistakes found at the end of the process would necessitate beginning over again," Bond said. "It is like waiting to test students until the 8th grade to see if they have 1st grade reading capabilities."

The amendment will make negotiations with the House "extremely difficult," Bond told colleagues, "and could lead to no bill being passed again."

The House approved its version of the bill last summer, but its language on reform is less stringent than that approved by the Senate. Congress last approved a WRDA bill in 2000, despite repeated efforts to pass new legislation.

Approval of the independent review amendment is a major victory for government watchdog groups and environmentalists who have long criticized the lack of oversight of the U.S. Army Corps.

"Today the Senate recognized that bringing in independent experts before the bulldozers roll could have saved lives in New Orleans," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. "This amendment, if passed into law, will protect people and help preserve natural systems like wetlands that can buffer some of nature's extremes."

But advocates of Corps' reform did not get all they wanted from the Senate - the bill includes more than $3 billion for a controversial lock modernization project on the Upper Mississippi and does not prioritize future spending by the Corps.

By a vote of 19-80, the Senate rejected an amendment by McCain and Feingold that would require a cabinet-level, interagency task force to create an annual list of project priorities.


Senator Russ Feingold (left) listens to a comment from his colleague Senator John McCain. (Photo credit unknown)
McCain said the measure is needed to help Congress make better funding decisions.

"Too often it is a member's seniority and party position that dictates which projects get funded and which join the $58 billion backlog," said McCain, who added that the bill tack on up to $12 billion more to Army Corps' list of projects.

The agency annually receives some $2 billion in funding, McCain said, and "there is no way to know which projects warrant these limited resources because the Corps refuses to give Congress its views on which projects are necessary."

"Even when Congress specifically requests a list of the Corps' top priorities, it is unable to provide it," he said. "Unfortunately, the underlying bill does not address this problem."

But that argument failed to sway the majority of lawmakers, who said the task force would usurp their right to set priorities through the legislative process and delay projects with more red tape.

"We need another bureaucracy in the federal government like a bear needs tennis shoes," Bond said. "This council is structured for projects to fail."

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, called the amendment "well-intended" but criticized the provision as a delegation of authority away from Congress over to the White House.

"It is going to make it more difficult for worthy projects to get funding and that includes projects that have an impact on public health and safety," Boxer told colleagues.