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Report gives boost to barge opponents

A consumer group criticizes an old plan that allows barge traffic on the Apalachicola River.

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Opponents of barge traffic on a major Southeastern river system got extra ammunition Thursday when the $20-million-a-year project appeared on a consumer group's list of frivolous government spending.

At issue is a 56-year-old Army Corps of Engineers program aimed at floating barges on the river system that includes the Flint in Southwestern Georgia, the Chattahoochee along the Georgia-Alabama border, and the Apalachicola, which feeds off both in the Florida Panhandle.

The annual "Green Scissors" report, conducted by U.S. Public Interest Research Group and other consumer and environmental organizations, contends the project wastes money and harms the environment.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who has been fighting to end dredging on the Apalachicola, agrees.

"Of the 30 water systems the corps is operating, the Apalachicola is the 26th- or 27th-most expensive. I think the whole approach the corps has taken to economically justify its projects is going to come under scrutiny," Graham said. With President Bush's budget outline due to be released next week, authors of the study hope the program won't make it past the cutting room floor in a White House eager to cut taxes by $1.6-trillion.

One lobbyist predicted it won't, calling the measure "low-hanging fruit."

"The corps built it, and the barges did not come," said Steve Ellis, director of water resources at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Why should taxpayers spend millions of dollars each year to maintain this mistake?"

Fewer than two barges navigate the system daily, so Graham and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., have led a fight to end the program.

Last year, their cause picked up momentum when Joseph Westphal, assistant secretary of the Army, sent them a letter in which he agreed that continued navigation wasn't "economically justified or environmentally defensible."

Dredging the Apalachicola has ruined miles of productive river flood plain. The corps piles the scooped-up sand on the banks, burying the river's edges where fish spawn.

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