Chinatown

Some really nasty secrets pollute the Trinity River deal

In the last week, the huge public-works campaign to rebuild the Trinity River through downtown has been rocked by revelations from Washington of deception and inefficiency, but the even greater devastation has been to the moral and political integrity of Mayor Ron Kirk and much of this city's leadership.

On October 3, the Office of Management and Budget under President Bush sent a scathing letter to the secretary of the Army, leaked to the media last week, accusing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of deliberately deceiving the public about the supposed benefits of the Trinity project.

The OMB letter tells the secretary, who is over the Corps, that the Corps, in its deal with Dallas, has been trying to foist off a project that actually will make flooding worse and will expose property and human life to greater risk than necessary at enormous cost to the federal government and local taxpayers.

Jim Blackburn, the Houston environmental lawyer representing critics of the river plan, a veteran of environmental battles all over the country, was clearly breathless after reading the OMB report:

"At its center, this is as corrupt as anything I've ever run across," he said last week. "Why should we be putting criminals in jail if the city of Dallas won't obey the law? These are outright outlaw actions."

No time would be a good time for this kind of revelation, but the country's current circumstances make it worse than ever. Even Corps officials seem to understand the larger implications here. Explaining to me why it may take a while for these issues to be resolved, Ron Ruffennach, spokesman for the Fort Worth district of the Corps, said he did not think the secretary of the Army will be able to deal with any of this soon.

"Let's be realistic about putting too much on his plate other than what he's dealing with internationally," Ruffennach said.

In spite of that, Mayor Kirk conceded to me last week that he has been actively involved in an effort to pull off a slippery end-run around the OMB through the Congress.

"I absolutely am going to lobby Congress to get this project approved," Kirk said angrily over the telephone.

The specific trick Kirk and city lobbyists in Washington are trying to pull off is the insertion of what is called "sufficiency language" in an appropriations conference committee report. In effect, this language would say that the Congress deems the project to be legal and in full compliance with federal law and rules regardless of whether the regulatory and oversight agencies agree. It would be a rare and bizarre use of law to put the Trinity River project above the law.

The mayor and his lobbyists may succeed--they may already have succeeded by the time this column comes out--but I also wonder if they may fail. I have a two-bit theory that they are up against a foe here whom they least suspect. I think the OMB report came about in the first place because of some unusual back-channel whistle-blowing from within the Corps itself. I think the Corps wants out of this thing.

The best hard evidence I can offer is that the Corps in effect already killed this project for the time being a month ago, in an action that Mayor Kirk has kept concealed from the City Council. In early September, the Corps informed parties to an environmental lawsuit that the Trinity River project "has been postponed indefinitely."

"Currently there are not plans to reactivate the solicitation in the next fiscal year," a Corps lawyer said in a letter to the parties.

By shelving the project, the Corps gave up a $2 million appropriation that had been approved for "general construction," Ruffennach confirmed to me. He said the reason for shutting down the Trinity project was that the Corps knew the OMB review was under way and wanted to wait to see what the OMB would find.

The ability of the Corps to carry out its basic duties has been severely compromised in the last year by a series of allegations of fraud and deception in Corps engineering studies, especially for projects on the Upper Mississippi. The real reason I think the Trinity project may have been covertly red-flagged from within the Corps itself is that very credible evidence of official deception in the Trinity project has been produced by critics of the plan, who have found what they say is dead-on proof of manipulation of computer models.

One of those experts, Larry Dunbar, a former Corps employee and hydrological engineer who works for Blackburn in Houston, confirmed to me last week that he had been a source for much of the information on which the OMB based its report. Dunbar also is the person who came up with evidence of phony computer models used to justify the Trinity project.

Dunbar told me it was clear from his conversations with the OMB that someone at the top had drawn a fat question mark over the Trinity project.

"This project got flagged somehow when the Bush administration was putting together a budget," he said. "Somebody decided that the OMB was going to review it. But I'm not quite sure how that happened or how it came off."

The OMB is charged with reviewing all proposed federal expenditures, but no one I spoke to on either side of this issue--not Kirk, not his critics--could remember an instance when the OMB had gone after a project with such focus or had come to such emphatic conclusions.

"What's surprising to me is not so much that they looked at it, as that they looked at it this closely and were willing to step up to the plate and do something about it," Dunbar said.

Over the last eight years, there has been growing indication that the Corps of Engineers had allowed itself to get shanghaied into some of the more dubious aspects of the Trinity project by its client, the city of Dallas. In fact, one of the most disturbing accusations in the OMB report is that the Corps deliberately concealed a much more efficient, safer, cheaper way to protect downtown Dallas from flooding, a method it looked at but then deep-sixed after the highway-hucksters in Dallas took over the project. The whole project, originally a good idea, went dark after Dallas started trying to cram an eight-lane highway to nowhere in between the levees.

I suspect the Corps wants out of this mess badly. They know they are vulnerable on the fake computer models. They can't afford a whole new round of scandal in Congress like the Upper Mississippi, and this is a way to break the fatal embrace.

All of that is fun baseball, but let's go to the bottom of the page. The OMB says the Corps originally looked at a far cheaper way to protect downtown Dallas simply by raising the level of the existing levees downtown, a plan that not only would have cost less money but would have also provided downtown Dallas with as much as 14 times more flood protection than the existing plan. The Corps subsequently removed that alternative from consideration without ever telling the public about it, according to the OMB.

"In excluding this alternative," the OMB report says, "the Corps presented an incomplete picture of the available choices and their impacts, and prevented an informed discussion of the merits of the proposed project."

Take just a moment to weigh that one. We're talking about flood protection. We're talking about domestic disaster--buildings destroyed, people killed, businesses and lives uprooted. Taking deliberate actions to weaken a program of this sort in order to get some secret advantage somewhere else, in this case on a speculative road project, is on a par with a pharmacist increasing his profits by selling watered-down cancer drugs. This is playing with human life and national security.

The OMB report also includes another devastating blow to the plan by revealing for the first time that the Corps, in spite of all its assertions to the contrary, could have considered a voluntary buyout of homeowners in Cadillac Heights. The Corps has asserted again and again that the only buyout it could take into account was a far more expensive mandatory buyout.

This is an area where Mayor Kirk has been especially cynical in his use of racial politics. Kirk continues to insist that the African-American and Hispanic populace of Cadillac Heights deserve their own levee, while the people of Cadillac Heights continue to plead every chance they get that they don't want a levee. They want to be bought out and removed from the toxic lead that contaminates the area.

Kirk is exploiting minority lives in a dishonest attempt to rationalize a road project sought by his rich white backers downtown, who obviously don't care who drowns, as long as they get their highway. And at this very moment, Kirk himself or Kirk's hired helpers in Washington are proving my point by trying to slip the Trinity River deal through the weir by cutting the wires.

I asked Kirk on the phone if he was at all concerned, given the nation's extreme circumstances, given the sacrifices Americans are being asked to make, given that this criticism comes from the staff of the president of the United States, that some people might view his actions as unpatriotic.

"Jim, I'm not going to even respond to that," he said. "Of all the lowest, most disagreeable things you've ever done, that may be the worst."

But I'm not drowning human beings or condemning families to give birth to deformed babies in order to help a bunch of rich real estate speculators who have offered to fund my Senate campaign.

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