On the unexpected-meter, it probably falls somewhere between Man Bites Dog and Trump Declines Comment. But on Friday, the Bush administration did something excellent for the environment.
In a letter obtained by TIME, Bush's Environmental Protection Agency moved to block a $220 million Army Corps of Engineers flood-control project in the Mississippi Delta, laying the groundwork for the first EPA veto of an Army Corps project since 1990. And the project is arguably the most ecologically destructive Army Corps boondoggle on the books today, which is saying something. It would build the world's largest hydraulic pump to protect a sparsely populated area dominated by soybean fields from Yazoo River flooding, and it would drain or degrade enough wetlands to cover all five boroughs of New York City. Authorized by Congress 67 years ago, the so-called Yazoo Pump is a relic of an era when wetlands were considered wastelands.
The pump, designed to move as much as 6 million gallons of water per minute, "would impact aquatic ecosystems on a massive scale," the EPA's Lawrence Starfield wrote in the letter. The Army Corps acknowledges that it would damage 67,000 acres of wetlands; the twelve Corps projects the EPA has vetoed in its history would have damaged a total of less than 8,000 acres. And scientists say the pump's actual devastation would be more like 200,000 acres, which is why 541 of them signed a letter calling for a veto. The Clinton Administration dismissed what then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called a "godawful, cockamamie" project in 2000, and even the top lobbyist for the Corps once described the pump and a second project in Missouri as "economic duds with huge environmental consequences."
The pump is officially a flood-control project for poor Delta communities, but more than four-fifths of the economic benefits calculated by the Corps would go to flood-prone farmers who already collect gigantic subsidies to grow soybeans on marginal land. And the federal government is on the hook for the entire $220 million bill, because Mississippi Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott slipped through a provision waiving local cost-sharing rules for the project.
But Lott recently quit the Senate. Cochran no longer chairs the appropriations committee. And the Bush Administration despite its sympathy for drilling, mining and logging, and its skepticism of regulation has been as green as a general's uniform when it comes to the Army Corps. Usually, the motivation has been a desire to eliminate waste and challenge congressional prerogatives rather than save the earth. So what?
In 2003, for example, the White House killed a $108 million Corps jetty project that Senator Jesse Helms had rammed through Congress to protect fishing boats on North Carolina. It was a stunning intrusion on congressional turf, and a laudable one; the jetties would have ravaged the Outer Banks at a cost of more than $500,000 per boat. In fact, Bush's Office of Management and Budget has consistently proposed zero funding for the agency's most environmentally disastrous and economically ludicrous pork the Yazoo pump, a $300 million irrigation project for a few Arkansas rice farmers, a $300 million deepening of the Delaware River that was exposed as a boondoggle by the Government Accountability Office, an unnecessary $750 million navigation just a stone's throw from the flimsy Corps floodwalls that drowned New Orleans but Congress has consistently ignored the proposals. The Corps is the only federal agency funded almost entirely by "earmarks," or individual pet projects requested by individual Congressmen, and Bush's budget office has been complaining about earmarks for seven years. It's no coincidence that the first congressional override of a Bush veto came last November when the President rejected a $23 billion smorgasbord of Corps water projects.
It's also no coincidence that Bush's former number-two budget official, Marcus Peacock, is now Bush's number-two EPA official. The Corps claimed in its analysis that the pump will ultimately benefit the environment, because the agency will mitigate the damage after it's built. But as Peacock knows all too well, a slew of independent investigations have exposed Corps analyses as shams designed to justify big projects that keep the agency's employees busy and its congressional patrons happy. The investigations have also documented how the Corps rarely follows up on its mitigation promises. And this pump would degrade at least twice as many wetlands as all of America's developers drain in a typical year, in a waterlogged area with bountiful fisheries, one of the Mississippi basin's last swaths of bottomland hardwood forest, and one of North America's key foraging grounds for migratory birds. "The Corps has a lot of projects that are horrible for the environment," says Melissa Samet, the water resources director for American Rivers and one of the founders of the Corps Reform Network. "But the Yazoo Pump has got to be the worst."
Army Corps makework has become a kind of inside-the-Beltway joke; when I first interviewed Lott's spokesman about the Yazoo pump, he mock-squealed: "Oh, no! You can't tell people about all this pork for Mississippi! Not in an election year! Please, don't throw us into that briar patch!" But it's all seemed less funny since Hurricane Katrina, when Corps failures ruined a great American city. The Corps was wasting money and destroying wetlands with mockeries like the Yazoo pump when it should have been building decent levees and restoring the wetlands that used to protect New Orleans. Killing the pump won't reform the dysfunctional Corps, and it won't prevent the next catastrophe. But it's a start.