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Army brats: The Corps of Engineers has too much power and too little sense

By Patrick O'Hannigan
web posted August 12, 2002

Novelist Ernest Hemingway once told aspiring writers to learn from the example of Zen painters, who allegedly paint hawks in flight by applying only a streak of blue to an otherwise empty canvas. Given a scrap of summer sky, viewers are expected to fill in the details for themselves.

Hemingway admired this minimalist technique because he understood that it could be applied to writing, too. What is not said can be as important as what is said. With that in mind, little-known federal comments about a recently resolved squabble over the Home Depot store in my town make the Army Corps of Engineers look bad indeed.

In commentary published recently by our daily fish wrap, the commanding officer for the local office of the Army Corps of Engineers explained that his agency had challenged a Home Depot construction project for violating provisions of the Clean Water Act. When a handful of local environmentalists complained that widening an existing road and creating a parking lot for the new store would harm more than the three acres of wetlands covered by the applicable subset of federal rules, the Army simply did what it thought it had to do.

In a mistimed effort at damage control, the columnist acknowledged a court ruling that the construction permit originally granted to a developer had been improperly revoked. No matter, he argued, the government had acted in good faith. In his words, "although the court determined that the manner in which the Army revoked the permit was incorrect, the court did not prevent the Army from carrying out its statutory duty to enforce permit violations under the Clean Water Act."

Some of those who watched the original contretemps from the cheap seats correctly assumed that the Army is more likely to prosecute permit violations than to enforce them. But ill-chosen verbs are small things next to the question of whether any government agency should feel vindicated simply because another arm of government doesn't question its mission. Is it okay to embrace error as long as your existence goes unchallenged? One hopes civil servants would set the bar a little higher.

I hold no brief for Home Depot or any other company whose clerks drive forklifts through cavernous aisles for the convenience of municipal bean counters grasping at sales tax revenue and people unhappy with their local hardware stores. But America remains, at least in theory, a free country, and I'm not inclined to give government the benefit of doubt just because it means well.

The Corps of Engineers puts projects that have substantial environmental impact through a review that includes consultation with other agencies, considerations of endangered species, and soliciting input from the public. The review process seems reasonable enough unless you're familiar with the agency's bipartisan reputation for impressive wastefulness.

This past March, Senators Robert Smith (R-NH), Russell Feingold (D-WI) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the Corps of Engineers Modernization and Improvement Act of 2002. They were motivated in part by investigative reporting from the Washington Post, which on February 24, 2000 published a story revealing that senior Corps officials had a secret plan to expand their operating budget by fifty percent over the next five years.

A watchdog group called Taxpayers for Common Sense summarizes the Post findings as follows: "The Corps' primary missions are navigation, flood control, and environmental restoration, but in recent years the agency has increased its involvement in irrigation, water supply, wastewater treatment, Superfund cleanups, and even construction and renovation of public schools."

None of the new mission areas has traditionally been a federal responsibility, but that hasn't stopped Corps bureaucrats from expanding their power base while whispering like Elmer Fudd in wabbit hunting season.

If you're going to argue with developers about whether drainage ditches are federally-protected wetlands (as the Corps did in my town), you have to be vewy vewy qwiet about your huge and growing backlog of authorized but unbuilt projects.

In the mid-Nineties, the Army Corps of Engineers complained that Granite City, Illinois builder Steve Lathrop was wrong for trying to make a profit on land he had converted from a garbage dump into a wildlife sanctuary, a lake, and a housing tract. Nan Robbins of Tennessee was told by a Corps inspector that mud on her shoes after a rain was evidence enough to call her land a swamp.

Since then, people who plot political strategy for the Corps by reading polls with all the veracity of tea leaves and chicken entrails have occasionally pushed for looser environmental regulations. Push come to shove, however, and neither the Oval Office occupant nor public sentiment matters at all, because the Army Corps of Engineers remains an agency bent on preserving its stranglehold on anything related to public works. So what if its portfolio includes projects like Optima Lake in Oklahoma, a fifty-million dollar boondoggle shunned by tourists, hunters, boaters, migratory geese, and every other constituency worth the name?

In my own backyard 200 miles north of the California metropolis named for Our Lady, Queen of Angels, lawsuits filed in the wake of devastating floods some years ago accused the obstreperous agency of mismanaging projects in the Pajaro River Watershed. Failures there and elsewhere don't matter, however, because the Corps of Engineers has "mission commitment" enough to impress even Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" character.

There is much to be said for the argument that Congress never intended to delegate wildlife habitat protection authority to the Corps of Engineers, which became the muscle for the Environmental Protection Agency only by willfully misunderstanding a useful little doctrine called "separation of powers." Outside the few local businesses that pride themselves on serving shade-grown coffee, that argument against the grasping ambition of federal engineers is almost as popular as "tri tip"-style beef and the raven-haired meteorologist whose down-home beauty has graced local airwaves for years.

Patrick O'Hannigan is a columnist for New Times in San Luis Obispo, California.

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