On the Army Corps of Engineers’ dredging front, it’s been concord and good will for months. But a recent Senate subcommittee investigation led by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio reminds us how recently Corps officials were “gaming” the system with budget manipulations and attempted extortion over keeping Cleveland’s economically critical Cuyahoga River navigation channel open for business.
Among the Army Corps’ gambits struck down a year ago in a scathing 52-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent: trying to force Ohio to pay more than $1 million of federal dredge costs before the Corps would even agree to dredge the final “money” mile to ArcelorMittal docks.
Nugent rightly slapped down that and other Corps maneuvers as unlawful and contrary to congressional directives and to the Corps’ own internal rules — motivated by an apparent attempt to circumvent state and federal environmental requirements to save a few million dollars it could redirect to other projects.
In September 2016, after the Corps failed to do any Cuyahoga River dredging for nearly a year, ArcelorMittal warned of potentially “catastrophic harm” that could force it to shut its Cleveland steel mill. That same month, Ohio filed another lawsuit, just settled in February.
There are reasons Congress prioritized Cuyahoga River dredging and budgeted to cover its costs — the Cleveland harbor accounts for $1.7 billion in direct economic activity, $1 billion in personal income and thousands of related jobs, Nugent noted in his ruling. Spinoffs are national as well as regional, including in Ohio construction and manufacturing.
Recently, the Corps has been compliant, with a new leadership team in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, led since March by R.D. James.Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that he heads, is so significant, as a window into part of an agency bureaucracy turned rogue, where officials who saw trouble ahead were ignored.reporting by the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer for prompting the inquiry and said that it confirmed that the Corps did lobby Congress in late 2014 to cut its own budget by $3.6 million. The reason? So it could say it didn’t have enough money to follow Ohio directives to dump contaminated Cuyahoga River dredge safely.
The Corps followed this tack even though some of its own officials were warning internally this maneuver would probably force delays in dredging and, as the Corps’ assistant chief counsel for litigation put it, that Nugent would likely see it as “gaming the system.”
In the May 10 letter, Portman urged the Corps to avoid similar “ill-advised decisions” and to be “more forthcoming with Congress” about its work.
Portman is right. Four years of strife prompted by the Army Corps’ announcement in late 2013 that it planned to dump as much as 80 percent of Cleveland Harbor dredge directly into Lake Erie instead of putting all contaminated sludge in a safe confined disposal facility as it had done for four decades, has cost taxpayers plenty. No more. Let the battles end.
Kudos to Portman for shining a light on the Corps’ internal maneuvers, to ensure that today’s safe, sustainable dredging continues.
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