- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

Clinton administration officials pressed the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a North Dakota water project, even though it lacked a feasibility study and sufficient time to determine environmental hazards, internal documents show.

"The Corps has had plenty of time to do this and you … didn't do it," a White House official heatedly states at one 1999 meeting, according to an internal Army Corps memo obtained by The Washington Times.

The pressure became so intense that Joseph Westphal, a civilian assistant Army secretary, accused the Corps' top general of disobeying an order. Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard responded by saying his boss was "bumbling," according to memos obtained by The Times.

White House and Army political appointees, joined by the state's congressional delegation, urged Corps officials to cut corners to construct a $100 million flood-control outlet on North Dakota's Devils Lake, the documents show.

The Devils Lake project is small in terms of the Corps' $30 billion backlog of water resource projects. But the congressional delegation pushed the White House so hard for approval last fall that Devils Lake consumed the time of Army Secretary Louis Caldera, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Budget Director Jack Lew and even President Clinton.

At one tense White House meeting in November, officials ordered the Corps to complete within 11 months a study of the project's pollution potential and effects on wildlife. "They recognize that we may not be able to meet our usual standards for such work," said a Corps internal memo, "but nevertheless they expect a document… . I explained that it was our honest professional opinion that we could not do a credible and defensible job of preparing, coordinating and filing an [environmental impact statement] before construction… ."

A special Senate task force is now investigating whether the Corps has been politicized and weakened by Clinton administration officials. The Times reported April 19 that Army political appointees, in a highly unusual move, ordered the Corps to delete its recommendation to leave four dams in place on the Northwest's Snake River.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said in an interview that he and other lawmakers pressed for Devils Lake approval because flooding had become a disaster for his constituents. He said persistent wet weather caused the lake to more than double in size, forcing the relocation of 500 houses and the shutdown of an entire town.

He said the Corps declined to label the project an emergency which would speed up the work because it used the wrong flooding model for what is a unique problem.

"It's a runaway lake," the senator said. "The name of the lake is Devils Lake, and it's well named because it is causing enormous havoc… . This thing is almost incomprehensible unless you've seen it."

Mr. Conrad said that if flooding continues on the lake's east end, not where the outlet is planned, the worst-quality water will spill out.

Nonetheless, environmental groups have raised objections to the outlet, worrying what harm the lake water will do to rivers and the Hudson Bay. Indian tribes, the state of Minnesota and the Canadian government also have objected.

Said Mr. Conrad, "We're basically in a race here… . If this lake continues to defy the projections, which it has, then we could face a catastrophic circumstance."

The e-mails between Mr. Westphal and Gen. Ballard showed how the intense pressure affected those involved.

"Your order not to provide me with the information I requested and expected has undermined my effort to resolve this issue and is unacceptable," Mr. Westphal said in a Nov. 18 e-mail. "The administration, the secretary of the Army and I fully expect you and your staff to cooperate and to make every effort to meet the administration's goals regarding Devils Lake. In case you have any doubt about the urgency of this matter, the president personally told me that he wants this issue resolved… . If you do not want to meet, then I will have to take this matter up with the secretary because I cannot continuing to do my job under these circumstances."

Gen. Ballard wrote back four days later, denying any such order was given. He accused Mr. Westphal of "bumbling."

"The Corps is doing what I said we would do to solve the problem you got us into," Gen. Ballard wrote. "Therefore, do not put the blame on me or anyone in my organization… . I never once ordered anyone not to give you anything and deeply resent your implications. You got us into this mess and you know it! I will not continue to be the scapegoat for your bumbling… .

"I sent this very same plan to you more than two weeks ago… . To be very honest Joe, I doubt whether you even saw it. You are never in your office! I did not mention to [Army Secretary Caldera] during my update to him that we had given you a plan weeks ago and was waiting your response. Maybe I should have because now you want to make an issue out of it. Get real."

The general ended his response by saying, "The bottom line is that I am willing to work with you and uphold my part of the bargain. I am committed to moving forward but not when I am being punched in the nose."

The Devils Lake project is in limbo today. This winter, Rep. Ron Packard, California Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, blocked Mr. Westphal's effort to reprogram $2.5 million to finish design work so construction could start in October.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a reporter's query.

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