The History of Transportation
on the Mississippi River
Part Ten
by Richard X. Moore, IWLA

In the early months of 2000, the future of the Mississippi River is shrouded in controversy. Just as the Corps of Engineers was poised to announce its initial recommended plan for the river's navigation system, charges emerged that the agency had deliberately manipulated the navigation study to justify large scale construction.

Ironically, the charges came from within the Corps itself. The Corps economist who headed up the economic portions of the navigation study came forward under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act with a sworn affidavit stating that he was ordered by his superiors to change the results of the economic modelling to show that lock extensions would result in substantial economic benefits to the nation. When he refused, he was replaced.

The Corps whistleblower's accusations set off a flurry of activity in Congress, within the Department of Defense, and other agencies within the federal government. There are now as many as half a dozen separate investigations of the charges of wrongdoing.

The charges are quite startling. The Corps economist, Donald Sweeney, filed a detailed list of allegations, many of them backed up by internal Corps memos and emails. The Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal agency charged with reviewing whistleblower complaints, took only two weeks to conclude that there was a "substantial likelihood" that the Corps broke laws, violated regulations, or wasted taxpayer's money.

In essence, Sweeney's charges are relatively simple. According to this statement, he spent five years developing the model that would predict the future demand for barge transportation, the key element in determining whether or not major expansion of the lock system would be cost effective. By November, 1998, he concluded that demand would not warrant expansion for many years.

Dissatisfied with his results, Corps officials brought in other economists to review Sweeney's work. The other economists agreed with his conclusions.

Corps officials then apparently began to look for ways to exaggerate the economic benefits of lock extensions. According to Sweeney's documents, they eliminated consideration of some low cost alternatives that could reduce congestion, overstated future demand, claimed benefits that did not exist, and understated construction costs. Many conservationists also believe that the Corps has systematically underestimated environmental damage from increased barge traffic to minimize the amount of money they would need to spend on mitigating environmental impacts.

None of Sweeney's charges have yet been proven, but there considerable evidence that he is telling the truth. Several independent economists who have reviewed the Corps economic work have also concluded that the demand for barges has been overstated. Most recently, the Corps economist who replace Sweeney as head of the economic study filed his own affidavit that he, too, was ordered to change the results to justify construction.

What this means for the future of the Upper Mississippi is uncertain. Powerful forces in Congress, backed by influential lobbying organizations, continue to push for lock extensions. Conservationists and others want the navigation study halted until the investigations are complete. And Congress and the Clinton Administration are quarreling over reforming the Corps to insure that such controversies do not erupt in the future.

What is clear is that the Mississippi serves as a stark example of what can happen when a variety of interests converge on the same resource. Conservationists see the Mississippi as a critical aquatic resource in a serious state of decline. Barge companies and agribusiness firms see the river as a highway for grain and other products, one that's badly in need of improvements. Midwestern farmers believe that improving the river's navigation system is vital to their economic survival, despite the fact that Sweeney's revelations, should they prove true, would indicate otherwise.

It is unfortunate that policy toward the Mississippi River, and indeed most other rivers in the country, has been dominated for so long by economic interests at the expense of the environment. Hopefully, the battle over the Mississippi will result in new approaches to water resources where the needs of various users are more carefully balanced.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9

 

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