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Army Corps scandal may prove costly for Great Lakes projects

The Army Corps of Engineers, already accustomed to heavy scrutiny, will likely find even closer inspection of feasibility studies after the recent scandal involving a $50 million study on improving five locks on the Mississippi River and two on t...

The Army Corps of Engineers, already accustomed to heavy scrutiny, will likely find even closer inspection of feasibility studies after the recent scandal involving a $50 million study on improving five locks on the Mississippi River and two on the Illinois. A corps employee, under the federal whistle-blower statute, challenged the study results.
"He alleged that the Corps had cooked the books and was using questionable numbers and forcing the study to come out with a positive cost benefit ratio," Davis Helberg, director of the Seaway Port Authority said. "The employee claimed numbers came out negative, and he was removed from the project. At least that's the claim."
The study determined that there was enough barge traffic to make the $1 billion lock expansion economically feasible. But now doubt over the accuracy of the study means at least a one-year delay on the project, while the corps incorporates the latest traffic figures and recalculates the project's feasibility.
Locally, Helberg, a member of the Minnesota Ports Association, has mixed feelings about the delay. "The Mississippi is a direct competitor of ours," Helberg said. "But on the other hand, it's also waterborne transportation, and in many respects we work with the river system to advance the cause of all waterborne transportation and help people recognize the essentiality of waterborne transportation to commerce, industry and jobs and to the well being of the country."
With doubt now hanging like a dark storm cloud over the Corps, studies involving Great Lakes projects may find themselves under even closer scrutiny. The Corps is just now embarking on a two-year, $1 million study of ways to improve the infrastructure in the Great Lakes navigation system. So far, the Corps has gained approval and funding for the first year of the study.
It's in the 2001 budget, but President Clinton hasn't signed it yet. The study will determine the scope and time line for future feasibility studies. The last comprehensive study was conducted in the 1980s. "The Corps is going to have to be very careful -- very methodical," Helberg said. "This could have the result that some of the Corps will be more gun shy than they have before. We didn't view it as good news because it just puts the corps under more pressure than they've already been under."
Another Great Lakes project that may find inspection through a thicker magnifying glass because of alleged misrepresentation of facts in the Mississippi River study is a similar but smaller scale plan to study expansion of the lock system at the Soo. The two locks connecting Lake Superior and Lake Michigan would be combined into one larger lock under the plan.
Army Corps spokeswoman Lynn Duerod in the office of public affairs says that what's happening with the Mississippi River study shouldn't have much effect at all. "It shouldn't have an impact," Duerod said. "All studies go through checks and balances, anyway. We haven't felt any repercussions from any other projects in any other district. We do great things in the Great Lakes area, and our projects will hold up to any scrutiny."
But Dick Lambert, director of ports and waterways for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, disagrees. He says the apparent deception of Army Corps officials in the Mississippi River study will mean closer scrutiny on the Soo Locks study.
"It will have an impact because it's the same Corps of Engineers doing the navigation study on the two locks at Sault St. Marie," Lambert said. "I just think that all the environmental agencies are calling for reassessment of the Corps' direction. I'm sure that has a carry over when the Corps is considering rebuilding the lock at Sault St. Marie. It's a difficult situation, and the government has to go through an analysis when something like this is raised."
It's environmental extremists, Helberg and Lambert say, who are casting the Corps in a bad light. "There's a certain element out there that's very aggressive and want to take out all the dams, bridges and locks and eliminate commercial navigation and return all the nations waterways to a wild and original state," Helberg said. "That's the extreme, but there is that element."
Environmentalists are happy the Mississippi River study will now take another year to complete. They're against the lock expansion project because they say the river's fragile ecosystem would be damaged by the work.
There are four publicly funded ports in Minnesota on the Mississippi River. They are in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Red Wing and Winona.

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