For the last five years, Dallas' downtown business establishment and mayor have staked their prestige on a massive U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to rebuild the Trinity River around the city center. Now that project may crash into the wall of a national scandal.
The Secretary of Defense has vowed an investigation, and congressional hearings are already under way into charges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency in charge of the nation's waterways, has been doing fake studies to justify big construction projects and a fatter budget for itself. Critics of the Trinity River project are already offering what they say is evidence of big-time fakery the Corps did here.
These are big stakes for Dallas.
Whenever critics complained about the cost, basic design, or ultimate safety of the Trinity River project, boosters were quick to say that it meets the standards of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as if that shield alone could turn any arrow or stone.
But what if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tells big fat lies?
U.S. Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan, whose agency hears whistleblower complaints from federal employees, notified Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen last week that she had found "substantial likelihood" that the Corps broke laws and engaged in "gross waste of funds" in a project on the Upper Mississippi. Kaplan's investigation corroborated charges by Corps economist Donald C. Sweeney II that the Corps had rigged a $50 million study in order to justify a $1 billion construction project.
So what about other projects? What about ours?
If there is no fire yet in Dallas, there is black smoke. Last week a hydrologist working for a citizens group pointed to what he said may be hamfisted manipulations of data by the Corps to justify the Trinity project.
Also last week, a joint report of two national environmental groups said the Trinity River project is one of the 25 worst "wasteful water projects" being carried out by the Corps nationally. The report, called "Troubled Waters," was published by Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation -- two groups with enough national prestige to guarantee a new look at the Trinity project.
The allegations against the Corps by one of its own economists, backed up by the special counsel, have to do with basic processes that would run through all Corps activities if they ran through any. The top management people named by Sweeney as having pressured him to fudge his reports on the Upper Mississippi have also been involved in the Trinity project.
Flood-control projects like the Trinity River -- along with federal highways, airports, harbors, all the big federal construction projects -- have to meet certain criteria set by law. If you want to build it, you have to prove first that it's needed. Then you have to show specifically that the benefits of building it are greater than the costs.
Even before the special counsel forwarded her findings, Army Secretary Louis Caldera had ordered a special review of a billion-dollar barge project on the Upper Mississippi after Sweeney blew the whistle. Sweeney alleged he had been leaned on, bullied, and eventually yanked from a $50 million study of the Mississippi project in order to make the study come out the way his superiors wanted. (You can read Sweeney's affidavit at www.environmentaldefense.org.)
Sweeney said in his affidavit that responsible, by-the-book expert studies kept finding that the $1 billion navigation project under consideration on the Upper Mississippi wasn't worth the dollars it would cost. He said a top Corps officer "told me to find a way to justify large-scale measures in the near term for the [Upper Mississippi] navigation system or [he] would find an economist who would, and I would be out of my job as technical manager of the economics work group. As I remember, he asked if I had a family to support or words to that effect."
The whistleblower story was actually the second fire alarm at the Corps of Engineers in recent weeks. The first was spawned by stories in The Washington Post reporting that the top military brass in the Corps had been promoting a more or less secret in-house agenda of aggressive public works construction that even the civilian head of the Corps didn't know about.
And here is where we begin to draw closer to the Trinity. From the very beginning, when the Corps announced it wanted to build major new levees through southern Dallas where none had existed before, critics of the project wondered why. After the disastrous Mississippi floods of 1993, a national study commissioned by the White House found that new levees and new construction generally are a bad way to prevent floods. It's cheaper, safer, and more cost-effective to buy people out and get them away from the river and up on high ground, the study found.
And yet the Trinity River project came along like a freight train in the late 1990s, chock-full of levee construction and even a major new highway inside the levees. Why?
Last week's stories in the Post revealed that the top military people in the Corps have been secretly pushing a campaign to boost their agency's budget by more than 50 percent, from $4.1 billion a year to $6.2 billion, by lining up new major construction projects. The Corps' ambitious growth plan, based on major construction, flies in the face of efforts by every president since Jimmy Carter to push it toward a greener view of the world. The Clinton administration has been especially skeptical of the Corps' penchant for pouring concrete.
Apparently the top military brass in the Corps have been cooking up their big expansion plans without the knowledge of the civilian chief of the agency, Assistant Army Secretary Joseph Westphal. The Post quoted Westphal as saying, "Oh, my God. My God. I have no idea what you're talking about. I can't believe this."
The day the Post story on the growth plan broke, top Corps officials were roasted at a Senate subcommittee hearing where Senators threw out phrases like "chaos at the Corps" and "hot-wiring the process."
These two related stories -- claims of fraudulent data manipulation and a secret plan to promote expensive construction projects -- are in their very early stages. In the meantime, what may be an even better story is developing around the Trinity River project, not that you'll ever read much about it in The Dallas Morning News.
Larry Dunbar, a lawyer and a former Corps of Engineers staffer himself, was hired by Houston environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn to pore through the supporting engineering data for the Trinity project. Blackburn represents several Dallas citizens groups that may bring a lawsuit against the Trinity project soon under the National Environmental Protection Act.
The Trinity project is based on a prediction of flood damages to downtown Dallas that the Corps says will happen if the project doesn't get built. To justify the project, the Corps had to find that the damages to downtown would be more expensive than what it would cost to build the new levees.
Dunbar found that a 1987 study by the Corps had determined that the existing levees were high enough to protect downtown by a wide margin. But in 1999 a Corps study found that the levees were far too low.
What had changed? Dunbar tried to figure that out by sifting through the Corps data. What he discovered was startling: Between 1987 and 1999, the Corps had raised its estimate of the level of the maximum floods that can be expected on the Trinity by seven feet.
That's huge. That's like, "Go into the ark, you and all your household."
If this increase is to be believed, it took place during a period when strict local policies were in place, dictated by federal authorities, requiring that no one build anything near the flood plain that would raise flood levels.
So how did it happen?
I called the regional Corps of Engineers public relations staff at their Fort Worth offices for a response. I even faxed them a detailed description of what I wanted to ask. I assume it's because of my previous reporting on the Trinity issue that the Corps' press relations people chose not to return my calls or were not allowed to do so.
They did respond to questions from Victoria Loe Hicks of the Morning News, and the News gave them the less critical treatment they were shopping for. In the News' coverage, buried deep inside the Metropolitan section, Corps spokesman Ron Ruffennach explained that the seven-foot wall of water used by the Corps to justify the Trinity project was the result of more accurate computer models.
Let me tell you: This man, Dunbar, is all over the "more accurate computer models" issue. He knew they would claim that. So he got down deep into those models. And he provided me with information that seems to challenge the claim that a change of computer models accounts for the wall of water. In simplest terms, it doesn't make any difference which computer model you use, because you calibrate all models to the same real-world "high-water marks" from historical floods along the river. I didn't get a chance to challenge the Corps on that. But somebody will.
This is the moment, the brief window of opportunity, when someone inside the Corps staff who knows the truth about the Trinity project can go to the special counsel, blow the whistle, and be a hero instead of a defendant.
Whoever winds up loading the gun in the national inquiries into Corps projects that are sure to take place -- congressional staffers, law enforcement investigators, top officials themselves -- the Trinity case will be too good to pass up. The Trinity project, after all, isn't just about wasting money. It's about playing games with human safety.
And finally, the foes of the project are determined as never before to push all the buttons, yank on every chain, and make sure their voices are heard outside Dallas. Blackburn, the Houston environmental lawyer, said last week that the alliance of groups he represents came out of last week's blizzard of events more determined than ever to bring the city and the Corps of Engineers to heel.
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"We're just not kidding around about this," he said. "This isn't a case of doing a lawsuit so everybody can feel better about having tried. We are going to bring the Corps down on this."
So if it does turn out that the Corps fudged the numbers, and if this whole exercise has been an idiotic waste of time, which line do you predict the mayor and his friends on the Dallas Citizens Council will take? They could always say, "We didn't know. We're not that smart."
Or, they could say, "We misled people, including the citizens of Dallas. We deeply regret that. Indeed, we did have a relationship with the Corps of Engineers that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong."
Either way, I'll be out there with my folding chair and popcorn, all ears.