The report confirmed a ‘disclosure statement’ filed in February by a whistleblower that Corps of Engineers officials deliberately manipulated data to justify a $1 billion lock expansion project on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

The agricultural and barge industries claim that larger locks and additional dams are needed to handle increasing congestion on the Mississippi River. Conservation groups fear this would pose a major threat to the environment within and around the Upper Mississippi.

The Army Corps began their Upper Mississippi River Illinois Waterway System Navigation Study seven years ago, spending $58 million studying how to meet navigation needs on the waterways.

The project would involve extensive enlargement and other improvements in the 29 locks and dams in the 854 mile stretch of the Upper Mississippi between Minneapolis-St. Paul and the mouth of the Ohio River as well as the 8 locks and dams on the 348 mile Illinois Waterway connecting the City of Chicago and the Great Lakes with the Mississippi. It is one of the largest single civil works projects proposed in recent years.

The chief economist and technical manager on the study was Army Corps economist Dr Donald Sweeney. Sweeney was removed from the project in December 1999 and subsequently demoted. In February 2000 he filed a 44 page affadavit and supporting documents with the US Office of Special Counsel charging that senior Corps officials manipulated the study to produce results favouring ‘immediate large-scale construction’.

Sweeney alleged that the Corps replaced economists (including himself), who found that expensive measures to speed up barge traffic were not justified. The Corps then changed the data to justify spending $1 billion of public funds. An Army Inspector General investigation began in March. The investigation found that one of the key parameters of the waterway study was ‘manipulated to result in a specific study outcome’.

Following Sweeney’s disclosure, the Washington Post reported that the Corps’ military leaders developed a strategy to increase the agency’s budget by more than 50% over five years. ‘Program Growth Initiative’ set a goal of increasing the budget from $4billion to $6.2 billion by 2005. The growth strategy was created without the knowledge of the Corps’ civilian managers.

At the same time, lobby group Environmental Defense released a report on the Red River Waterway, Louisiana, showing barge traffic has failed to meet government projections needed to justify the more than $2 billion spent by the Corps in converting the river into a barge canal. It found that commercial traffic in 1997 was only 4% of the traffic projected for that year by the Corps when it was seeking to justify the project.

The Environmental Defense report was prepared by Dr. Robert Stearns, an economist at the University of Maryland and formerly a top official with the Army Corps. The report shows that most of the commerce reported by the Army Corps on the Red River only travels on the lowest 35 miles of the river, a section navigable before implementation of the Red River’s $2 billion project.

“Together the Red and Upper Mississippi River stories show the Army Corps needs some real reform to stop building projects badly in the red,” said Environmental Defence attorney Tim Searchinger commenting on the investigation. “The investigation found the Army Corps’ planning process is systematically biased in favour of building projects, no matter what the need, and no matter what the cost to taxpayers and the environment.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie