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The U.S. House of Representatives has put new reins on the Army Corps of Engineers in authorizing $4.7 billion in new water projects over the next 15 years.
For the first time, the agency would be required to submit its environment and cost-benefit studies on its projects for a review by outside experts, according to an Associated Press report by John Heilprin. The requirement was inserted yesterday into an otherwise routine authorization bill after the corps was accused of doctoring data to justify a $1 billion expansion of barge locks on the Upper Mississippi River.
This is "the most environmentally friendly" water projects bill that Congress has produced, said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on water resources and environment.
The bill would reduce from 60 percent to 35 percent the nonfederal share of costs for deep draft navigation projects between 45 feet and 53 feet. The House's 412-8 vote sends it to the Senate, which is putting together its own version.
The White House said in a statement it does not support the bill due to its costs and new funding formulas, saying it would delay completing more than $20 billion in backlogged corps project.
"These authorizations will create expectations for future funding that cannot be met given competing fiscal priorities including deficit reduction," the White House statement said.
Among the projects are $719 million effort to reduce hurricane and storm damage in coastal Louisiana, $257 million to cut flooding by California's American River and $153 million to improve a shipping channel at Corpus Christi, Texas.
Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the House Transportation Committee's senior Democrat, said the independent reviews of large-scale water projects "will help restore the confidence Congress has long put in the Army Corps of Engineers, but has been shaken lately."
"The nation needs the corps. The corps also needs to be sure that its proposals withstand the strictest scrutiny," Oberstar said.
The outside reviews were recommended by a National Academy of Sciences panel commissioned by Congress in 2000 after a corps economist accused agency officials of doctoring a $54 million study of the upper Mississippi River navigation system to justify a $1 billion expansion of barge locks.