The Army Corps Engineers is a 23,000-employee federal agency that works on a wide range of infrastructure projects for military and civilian purposes. Its a honorable history in helping build everything from the Washington Monument to the Panama Canal.
But like many federal agencies it is prone to mission creep, pork-barrel projects, and outrageous cost overruns.
The Corps has always been eager to expand its budget and build new structures.
At the same time, members of Congress have been eager to have the Corps tackle projects in their states and districts, and in recent years the agency has expanded into work on over 500 municipal water supply and wastewater treatment facilities.
But the Corps has a dubious record of handling such projects, on both cost and environmental grounds.
On a recent trip to Missouri, it now looks as if Corps may be expanding into the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. Since the country has hundreds of these, this is a worrisome precedent.
The West Lake Landfill, near St. Louis’s Lambert International Airport, has been a local eyesore since 1974 but has posed no discernible danger to local public health and safety despite some radiological material left over the 1940s Manhattan Project being present.
The Centers for Disease Control says that there is no health risk to local residents from groundwater, air, or soil contamination. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies have also found no indication of immediate health risk.
Nonetheless, the EPA has long had the site on its list of Superfund cleanup projects.
But after 25 years, they have completely dropped the ball and now there has been no cleanup. Local residents complain about the foul-smelling landfill have been demanding action and worry that a nearby landfill site has seen subsurface smoldering that could spread towards West Lake.
Last year, the EPA finally bestirred itself and announced it would clean up the site and also build a physical isolation barrier preventing any subsurface fire from spreading. The plan was to involve to the West Lake site, all in 2016. Crucially, the plans involve private sector parties paying much of the cost of the cleanup.
But the EPA’s years of inaction led fed-up local residents to demand more. That explains why this week the U.S. Senate passed a bill to give the Army Corps of Engineers the authority to clean up the radioactive waste.
“With the passage of this legislation today, the Senate has demonstrated that voices of the community around West Lake Landfill are being heard,” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri proclaimed.
Missouri Reps. William Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner have introduced companion legislation in the House — and also demanded it be passed immediately with no hearings.
One possible reason for the haste is that a main backer of the McCaskill bill is the Teamsters Union, a politically powerful player in the St. Louis area. The union says it is concerned the landfill represents "a human rights violation."
It also worries that landfill workers at the site "lack a union and are left without a means to voice concerns without fear of retaliation." Transferring control of the project to the Corps of Engineers could mean more union involvement in the cleanup — and higher wages for the workers on it.
Frustration with EPA negligence is understandable, but giving the project to the Corps of Engineers at a cost of $400 million is no solution.
No hearings were held on Sen. McCaskill’s bill and there was almost no debate.
The full cost will be borne initially by the taxpayer (with extensive court battles to come to try to get cost recovery awards from local parties). The Senate bill is a classic case of switching players in the middle of a game, which often creates chaos. After years of study, a workable plan is finally in place.
Giving the project to the Corps of Engineers and having them start from scratch is likely to cause delays and leave taxpayers holding much more of the tab. The McCaskill bill also creates a bad precedent by switching the costs to taxpayers away from the private sector with no clear benefit to public health or safety.
A better approach in handling federal Superfund sites would be to transfer responsibility and funding for cleanups to the states, which could establish their own priorities for cleanups. Micromanaging such decisions from Washington rarely improves outcomes.
John Fund is an expert on American politics where politics and economics and legal issues meet. He previously served as a columnist and editorial board member for The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of several books, including "Who's Counting: Bow Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote At Risk." He worked as a research analyst for the California Legislature in Sacramento before beginning his journalism career as a reporter for the syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Fund also is a Newsmax TV contributor — More Info Here. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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