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News from the National Academies
Date: July 25, 2002
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

For Immediate Release

Large-Scale Engineering Projects Planned by Corps
Should Undergo Outside, Independent Review

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should solicit external scientific reviews of its most costly, complex, and controversial planning studies, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The reviews should be made available to the public, and the Corps should respond in writing to each key point, added the committee that wrote the report.

"The highest degree of credibility will be achieved if responsibility for external review is given to an organization that is independent of the Corps," said committee chair James K. Mitchell, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. "There is a strong correlation between the independence of reviewers and the credibility, both real and perceived, of review."

The Army Corps of Engineers conducts planning studies to determine if there is federal interest in projects proposed for America's waterways and, if so, whether those projects are justified on technical, economic, and environmental grounds. Congress asked for the Research Council report after public controversies erupted in recent years over the assumptions and analyses found in certain Corps studies, especially a draft feasibility study of a $1 billion plan to enlarge locks on the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway.

Congress should direct the secretary of the Army to establish a small professional staff to administer the Corps' review process, the committee said. This project review group would decide on a case-by-case basis whether reviews of Corps planning studies ought to be conducted externally or internally. The group should be housed either in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, who oversees the Corps, or within the office of the chief of engineers, the Corps' highest-ranking official. Congress also should create a review advisory board to provide periodic advice to the project review group, helping to ensure that reviews are consistent, thorough, and timely.

All Corps studies that are expensive, very controversial, affect a large geographic area, or involve a high degree of environmental risk warrant an external review, the committee said. External review panels should not be selected by the Corps or include Corps staff or others with a conflict of interest. Instead, the reviews should be overseen by an independent organization.

Decisions about whether a review will be external or internal need to be open to public appeal, the committee said. In addition, Congress and the White House should be able to request an external or internal review. Internal reviews are adequate for Corps planning studies that are not as complex, cost less, and are less risky to the environment. The Corps should generally select internal-review panels that are balanced between Corps staff and external experts.

The role of all review panels should be to identify, evaluate, and comment on key assumptions that underlie technical, economic, and environmental analysis in the planning studies, the committee said. The chief of engineers, or district engineers in certain cases, must either agree with each key point in a review and explain how it will be taken into account, or rebut the comment and explain why it is being rejected. The review panels ought to highlight areas of disagreement that need to be resolved by the White House and Congress, but they should not provide a final thumbs up or thumbs down on a project.

In addition, it is important that reviews be initiated early enough in the study process so that the review's results can improve the study and lend credibility to the process, the committee noted. In more complex and controversial planning studies, it may be appropriate to conduct an initial review early on and a more comprehensive one later. Reviews generally will represent a small fraction of the overall cost of major planning studies, and occasionally may even lead to savings.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

The report Review Procedures for Water Resources Planning is available on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Copies will be available for purchase later this summer from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).



NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth on Life Studies
Water Science and Technology Board

Panel on Peer Review

James K. Mitchell1,2 (chair)
University Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg

Melbourne G. Briscoe
Director
OAS Processes and Prediction Division
Office of Naval Research
Arlington, Va.

Stephen J. Burges
Professor of Civil Engineering
University of Washington
Seattle

Linda Capuano
Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Business Development
Honeywell Inc.
San Jose, Calif.

Denise Fort
Professor
School of Law
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque

Porter Hoagland
Research Specialist
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole, Mass.

David H. Moreau
Professor
Department of City and Regional Planning, and
Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill

Craig E. Philip
President and Chief Executive Officer
Ingram Barge Company
Nashville, Tenn.

John T. Rhett
Consultant
Harding Lawson Associates
Arlington, Va.

Richard E. Sparks
Director
Illinois Water Resources Center
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign

Bory Steinberg
Co-founder
Steinberg and Associates
McLean, Va.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Jeffrey W. Jacobs
Study Director


1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering