WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Army Corps of Engineers is going back to the drawing board as it reviews a controversial $1 billion lock-expansion project because of lower forecasts for barge traffic on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
Environmentalists hailed the corps' decision, made public Tuesday, to incorporate the new traffic figures into its scandal-plagued analysis of the upper Mississippi navigation system. Meanwhile, a coalition of agribusiness and shipping interests that has been pushing for the costly construction warned that adding another year to the process would harm already declining farm profits.
The corps' 7-year, $54 million study -- the subject of years of fierce debate -- aims to balance the economic benefits of expanding barge locks on the two rivers with the financial and environmental costs.
Shipping interests say massive lock expansions are crucial to keeping transportation costs low as grain exports -- and thus barge traffic -- rise. Otherwise, they say, Midwestern products will not be able to compete on the global market.
Environmentalists argue that the river's fragile ecosystem would be further endangered by large-scale changes.
The corps was due to release its draft recommendation this fall, and its initial conclusions favored the most extensive proposal still on the table, lengthening five locks on the Mississippi and two on the Illinois.
But earlier this year, corps economist Donald Sweeney filed a sworn affidavit alleging that his superiors altered data and his original conclusions in order to make the $1 billion cost of that massive construction appear justified. Sweeney's charges resulted in still-pending investigations by the Army inspector general and the National Academy of Sciences.
Corps officials have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying new data -- not foul play -- caused the study to change.
However, it recently became clear that actual barge traffic over the last six years was lower than the forecasts used in the corps study, and the agency hired a consultant to reassess long-term predictions. The new forecasts, also made public Tuesday, now will be used to develop revised estimates of the costs and benefits of several construction alternatives.
That means a draft construction recommendation will not be ready until next September.
Chris Brescia, president of MARC 2000, a coalition of agribusiness and barge operators, called the new timetable "unconscionable."
"This delay tactic is nothing more than a political nuisance which is particularly destructive this year," he said. "Congress and the corps must find the will and integrity to do what is right for the U.S., otherwise we will all lose in the end."
But Jeff Stein, a regional representative of the Washington conservation group American Rivers, praised the corps for being willing to incorporate new information into the study. Even small changes in traffic projections could have a large impact on the final cost-benefit conclusions, he noted.
"This is an excellent move," he said.
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