Water Bill Guts Environmental Review of Corps Projects

Fifty Law Professors Urge Removal of Troubling Provisions: “As written, this bill puts the fox in charge of the hen house.”

04-09-2013 // Lacey McCormick
Wareham, MA Climate Smart Riverine System 2

Fifty law professors from across the country have signed onto a letter asking for the removal of two provisions in the current version of the Water Resources Development Act that prevent effective environmental reviews of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposals.

“I have always considered Senator Boxer a friend to the environment and I’m shocked she would put her name on this bill,” said Holly Doremus, a professor of Environmental Regulation at the University of California–Berkeley School of Law. “The bill as it stands would allow the Corps to do an end-run around careful environmental review.”

This bill was co-sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator David Vitter (R-LA). The almost 300-page bill was introduced just three weeks ago on a Friday evening and voted on by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee the following Wednesday. The full Senate could vote on the bill as early as Thursday.

“The history of the Corps water program has all too often been a story of taxpayer dollars being poured into projects with greatly exaggerated benefits and massively underestimated costs," said Zygmunt J.B. Plater, a law professor at Boston College. “As written, this bill puts the fox in charge of the hen house. If the bill passes, we'll see even more taxpayer dollars sunk into dysfunctional projects that hurt the national interest.”

Sections 2032 and 2033 limit environmental reviews of Corps projects by the public and by federal agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. For example, these provisions will allow the Corps to fine agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service up to $20,000 a week for missing the bill’s accelerated deadlines and will allow the Corps to send even technical disagreements to the President.

The critical importance of the environmental review process was recently highlighted by a U.S. District Court finding that a Corps project known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet was responsible for much of the flooding during Hurricane Katrina. “The federal district court in New Orleans ruled that shortcutting the very laws that would be waived by this bill led to the drowning of New Orleans and the greatest flooding disaster in American history,” said Oliver Houck, a professor of law at Tulane University.

In March, the administration sent a letter to Congressional leaders outlining their requests for the new version of the Water Resources Development Act. Of particular note is the Administration’s request to maintain the current framework for environmental reviews.

“Giving the Corps this much latitude with so little oversight does not bode well for our rivers and streams, for public safety, or for taxpayer’s wallets,” said Patrick Parenteau, senior counsel for the Vermont School of Law’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic. “Senators on both sides of the aisle should vote down any bill containing these two provisions.”

Read the full letter here.

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