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."