In the Spotlight

News & Features
Seizing the Opportunity
by Mary Losure
May 17, 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

For years, Midwest environmentalists have fought to stop an Army Corps of Engineers' plan for the upper Mississippi River. The Corps wants to spend $1 billion expanding the river's lock-and-dam system, so barges can move more freely. Environmentalists worry increased barge traffic would hurt the Mississippi's rich backwaters, which are critical habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife. But in recent months, the Corps' plan has been tainted by scandal. Now, environmental groups say for the first time in years, they have a good shot at defeating it.

See a slideshow about the effects of locks and dams on the Mississippi River.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, a whistle-blower named Don Sweeney filed a request for a federal investigation of the Army Corps of Engineers. Sweeney was a Corps economist who headed a long-term $50 million study of navigation on the Mississippi River. That study found the economic benefits of the proposed lock system expansion did not justify its billion-dollar cost. Sweeney charged that Corps officials rejected that conclusion, then manipulated the data until it could finally justify the massive construction project.

Environmentalists like Carl Zichella, the Midwest director of the Sierra Club, couldn't be happier about the Corps scandal. "We have the greatest opportunity we have ever had to make a change in the Army Corps right now," he says. "Don Sweeney blew the whistle on them, said they were cooking the books. That has shined the light on the Corps in a way that they have never experienced before."

Zichella and other environmentalists have been frustrated for years by the Corps' legendary ability to win congressional funding for large, cement-pouring projects. Now, Zichella hopes the scandal will begin to change that.

"Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, when he heard about this, called the Washington post from Croatia to announce he was going to hold hearings, and did have hearings on it. This is far from over. And I think even though the Corps had a lot of members of Congress who are wearing the Army Corps of Engineers team jacket, they also have a lot of people who are taking that jacket off."

Changing Course Stories
The Whistleblower
>Seizing opportunity
A Greener Corps?
One Man and a Wheelbarrow
The Sins of Pig's Eye
Last Chance for the Higgins Eye
Small Victories

Changing Course Home
The Army Corps of Engineers declined to comment on the whistleblower's accusations, citing ongoing investigations. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has asked the office of the Army Inspector General to look into the allegations. And Army Secretary Louis Caldera has also asked the National Academy of Sciences to do an independent review of Corps' navigation study and its conclusion that the lock expansion makes economic sense. Under federal law, Corps projects cannot win funding unless their economic benefits outweigh their costs.

Environmental groups are eager to have someone besides the Corps take a look at the economic pros and cons of the lock-expansion project. They also want independent scientists to weigh the environmental costs of increasing barge traffic on the Mississippi. "You have the barge industry saying the river is a dirt road that has to be upgraded to a superhighway," notes the Sierra Club's Zichella. "We're saying, 'Hold the wedding!' We need to back up a moment and look at what's happening to the river."

On the Mississippi about 50 miles south of Saint Paul, Mike Davis poles his boat through a shallow backwater. Davis is the Mississippi River biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "In general, the habitat's on a downward slide, there's just no doubt," he says.

The reasons are complex, but Davis says one of the main ones is the way in which the Corps runs the lock-and-dam system on the river. The Corps built the system, beginning in the 1930s, to create a deep channel for navigation.

Today, the Corps controls water levels on nearly the entire length of the upper Mississippi . The Corps keeps the river at a constant level, so that barges can float on it all summer long. Because of that, plants that once flourished under the natural rise and fall of the river, are dying out.

"Killing the navigation system or restricting the growth of the navigation system is not the answer."

- Chris Brescia
Davis remembers when swans came to the backwaters by the thousands to feed in marshes that have vanished now. He's watched trees dying out in the flood-plain forests, and the mosaic of the backwaters crumbling.

"We're losing all those kinds of habitats because of the more rigid control we have over the rhythms of the river," he says.

Davis and many other biologists want the Corps to let water levels fluctuate more, to mimic the rise and fall of a natural river system, and rejuvenate the backwaters.

Davis starts the motor and heads up the river. Recently, he flew out to Washington to testify against the lock expansion. He says right now, the Corps controls the river to benefit barge traffic first and other interests second. He says if the Corps expands the lock-and-dam system, it's unlikely that will ever change.

"What we're reaching out for is a balance. Congress has said the river's got two main functions: one is navigation, one is an ecosystem. If we're going to maintain the ecosystem, navigation has got to stop being first, and we have to buy some time for the river to heal. And we can do that. But the barges have got to give something up."

But others say it's not a question of choosing between navigation interests and a healthy river. Chris Brescia is president of Marc 2000, a group representing barge owners. He says they're already working with the Corps to try to reduce the damage from navigation. He says the Corps has begun experimental programs in several stretches of the river to allow water levels to fluctuate more naturally.

"Killing the navigation system or restricting the growth of the navigation system is not the answer," Brescia says.

Brescia says 60 percent of the grain exported by American farmers moves down the Mississippi by barge. He says reducing barge traffic would be a net loss for the environment, not a gain. "If you're going to move 100 million tons, you have three choices: you can use the barge system, the rail system, or the truck system. In order to move 100 million tons, you would have to put 4 million more trucks on the road, or a million more rail cars. And when you look at fuel consumption, air emissions, and accident rates, there is no comparison."

Brescia says the Army Corps of Engineers has spent millions of dollars over the past few years studying environmental problems such as fish kills and increased sedimentation caused by barge traffic on the river. He says the Corps' studies have found those problems are basically "negligible."

Gary Loss, the project manager for the Corps' Mississippi navigation study, says it also shows the lock expansion is economically justified. "I think someday the project will be built," he says. "It depends. We are furnishing our information. Congress has the tough task of deciding what they want us to do. Our job is to give them as objective opinions, findings, conclusions, studies that we can so they can make the right decisions."

But members of Congress may be less likely take the Corps' word than they have in the past. Loss says a number of members who supported the project before are more cautious in the wake of the whistleblower's scandal.

Last summer, Congress voted to approve funding for preliminary engineering and design of the expansion. Loss says he's noticed a change since then.

"I guess some of those congressmen who voted for that now are saying we need to await the independent investigation before they vote one way or the other as far as support for these improvements."

To add to to the Corps' problems, a second Army Corps of Engineers economist has now told congressional investigators he was ordered to alter key findings to justify the lock expansions.

Next: A Greener Corps?