- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Senior Army political appointees privately ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to erase from a report its recommendation to leave in place four dams on the Northwest's Snake River, according to internal documents.

Army Secretary Louis Caldera and his assistant secretary for civil works issued the orders last fall, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times. Two months later, the Corps issued its environmental study minus its conclusion that the dams should remain.

Defense Department sources say the order was highly unusual. The Corps, they say, has a long history of issuing environmental impact statements and recommendations based on science, not political influence. A special Senate task force is investigating whether the Clinton administration is politicizing the Corps through orders such as the one on the Snake River.

Environmental groups, who are sympathetic to the presidential candidacy of Vice President Al Gore, are pressing the Clinton White House to approve breaching the Snake River dams. The goal is to ease the journey of fingerling salmon and steelhead trout through Idaho and Washington state to the Pacific Ocean.

As with many other water projects, the environmental groups' stance puts them at odds with the 221-year-old Army Corps. After a lengthy study, the Corps drafted but did not release a recommendation to keep the dams, which supply electrical power generation to the entire Northwest. The Corps' so-called "preferred alternative" called for building a network of bypasses to help the fish reach the ocean.

The Corps was ready to announce its findings on Oct. 14, but the plan was canceled after Army civilians ordered the Corps to stay quiet.

According to an internal Corps memo obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Caldera telephoned the Corps' deputy commander on Oct. 8.

"[The deputy commander] received phone call from Secretary Caldera directing that we not hold our planned 14 October meeting and that nothing concerning a preferred alternative be announced," the memo states. "The secretary directed that everything that had been sent out to federal agencies be sent to the [assistant Army secretary for civil works]."

That civilian official, Joseph W. Westphal, later sent a memorandum to Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard, Corps commander, ordering him to delete the preferred alternative from the draft study.

"The Army does not at this time have a preferred alternative from among those alternatives considered in the draft lower Snake River feasibility study," Mr. Westphal wrote in an Oct. 22 memo obtained by The Times. "Therefore, we need to ensure that the draft feasibility study and all related discussions and correspondence are consistent with this policy guidance and do not identify a preferred alternative at this time. In this regard, chapters six and seven of the draft feasibility study should be reserved for future use."

Mr. Westphal said a planned Corps policy review conference in November could proceed but that no oral or written presentation could include the preferred alternative.

On Oct. 8, two weeks before the Westphal order, Mr. Caldera sent an e-mail message to the Corps saying he had spoken with White House officials about the Snake River study. He suggested that no preferred alternative was needed.

"George Frampton [an environmentalist and chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality] did not think it was a requirement to have a preferred alternative on an [environmental impact statement]," Mr. Caldera said in his e-mail message, a copy of which also was obtained by The Times.

One Defense Department official said he could not recall a previous circumstance in which Army leaders ordered the Corps to remove its recommendation from an environmental study.

An Army spokesman said yesterday that officials ordered the Corps to change its report because they did not believe enough scientific evidence existed to make a recommendation.

"The draft EIS (environmental impact statement) is not a decision document that results in a final project decision," the spokesman told The Washington Times. "It is designed to provide a spectrum of solutions that can be reviewed as part of the process of determining whether or not a particular federal action should be taken.

"This decision reflected a judgment that it was premature to identify a preferred alternative at the time, and that the public interest would be better served if more information was brought to bear on this issue, some of which would be derived from other ongoing studies."

The draft impact study was released in December, minus the Corps' conclusion that the dams should stay. Instead, the report merely listed options, without a recommendation.

A special U.S. Senate task force has begun an investigation into whether Clinton administration appointees are trying to politicize the Corps to bring its positions more in line with those of liberal environmental groups.

The Corps, a U.S. Army command with 34,000 employees, plays a major national role in building water projects such as dams and channels, and issuing environmental impact statements on other proposed developments. Its supporters say its decisions are based on "the best science" and that it tries to balance environmental safeguards with a region's economic needs.

The Army's suppression of the Snake River recommendation is expected to be one issue examined by staffers who make up the task force from the Senate Appropriations, Armed Services, and Environment and Public Works committees.

The panel's three Republican chairmen Ted Stevens of Alaska, John W. Warner of Virginia and Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire sent a subpoena-style letter to the Corps on April 11. It asked for records that "in your view constitute inappropriate political interference by executive branch officials in the professional judgments of Army Corps of Engineers personnel."

The White House has yet to take an official position on breaching the Snake River dams. But defense officials said it favors removing them at a cost of $1 billion.

The White House has drafted a new presidential order that would reverse a policy adopted by President Reagan in 1983 by putting far more emphasis on a project's environmental impact and less on its economic benefits. The draft also harshly criticizes the Corps.

It contends Corps flood-control projects have "come at great expense to the floodplain and riverine ecosystems associated with the Mississippi River, which we have come to know as 'America's River.' "

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