Washington, DC — An obscure but key federal agency responsible for dams, wastewater treatment and flood control on the U.S.-Mexican border maintains that it has “resolved” or is remedying every one of an array of major environmental infrastructure weaknesses cited in various governmental reviews, according to correspondence posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The scandal-scarred agency is run by a Bush holdover appointee, operating without outside oversight.
The little-known United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) has been crippled by mismanagement “threatening its essential responsibilities for flood control and water management in the American Southwest”, according to a report from the State Department Inspector General (IG). The State Department only provides “foreign policy guidance” to USIBWC, leaving the 120-year old agency free to makes its own decisions about dams, levees, flood control channels and water treatment plants along the border.
In an August 13th letter, Sally Spener, a USIBWC spokesperson, hotly disputed PEER’s characterization of her agency as “the most incompetent and abusive in federal service”. The USIBWC argues that its management problems have all been solved, citing a State Department IG follow-up report. While noting some short-term improvements, that follow-up report repeated the grave concerns of its original review:
“The USIBWC is out of the national limelight, but a major storm and flood could overwhelm the barriers and cause considerable damage. This would usher in bouts of finger pointing between Departments, agencies, and jurisdictions concerned.”
“The water infrastructure on our border with Mexico gets far less attention than security issues, although effects from infrastructure failure could be far more calamitous,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “This Commission is a 19th century institution grappling with a 21st century challenge.”
The State Department IG again strongly recommended action to cure the lack of oversight at USIBWC:
“The agency is simply too small, too isolated, and too vulnerable to management abuse to continue without the protection and oversight of a major government department.”
PEER charges that the lack of oversight in this agency threatens horrendous water pollution, disastrous flooding and waste of tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds. During the past week, current and former Commission employees have contacted PEER to report ongoing problems, including:
- Retaliation against whistleblowers who report legal violations, waste or threats to public safety;
- Rampant crony hiring and other personnel abuses; and
- Disregarding laws and rules designed to prevent waste and malfeasance.
“At USIBWC, it is as if the inauguration of President Obama never occurred,” added Ruch, noting that the current Commissioner, C.W. “Bill” Ruth is a Bush appointee who serves at the pleasure of the President. “The Obama administration cannot meet its pledges to transform government if it continues to ignore accountability-free zones like this agency.”