Washington, DC — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed rampant fraud, widespread safety violations and serious threats to public health in its massive Mississippi clean-up operations following Hurricane Katrina, according to agency documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The documents depict a total breakdown in Corps management of its contractors.
In the chaotic post-hurricane environment, contractors from hundreds of miles around converged on towns that were in some cases little more than rubble. In paying crews by the amount of debris removed, the Corps created an incentive to cheat as contractors raced to raise their load totals and make more taxpayer money, regardless of whether the material was being safely or legally handled – or even whether it was, in fact, debris. The Corps documents show, for example that –
- Crews were caught in a national forest cutting healthy trees undamaged by Hurricane Katrina to fill their loads; and
- Contractors routinely roamed outside of demolition zones to grab the greatest amount of material they could quickly load; and
- Subcontractors were directed to gather and report illegal loads to pad load statistics.
PEER obtained the documents following litigation filed under the Freedom of Information Act. On April 2, 2007, the Corp denied the group’s original record request on the grounds there was nothing to be found:
“The Hurricane Katrina relief effort is a highly profiled recovery effort and has been very publicly scrutinized…None of these reviews have discovered any environmental damage by the relief effort.”
Yet, the Corps’ own contemporaneous incident reports describe hundreds of environmental and safety violations that endangered both workers and the general public, ranging from car accidents to chainsaw mishaps to broken water mains to improper burning of debris pits.
“Admittedly this was a tough job but that is all the more reason why it should be openly examined rather than buried in a bureaucratic debris pit,” stated PEER Counsel Christine Erickson. “It is fair to say that the Corps has been the antithesis of transparency in this inquiry.”
Part of the problem was that Corps “quality assurance” officers were overwhelmed, unable to exert even rudimentary control over contractors. This lack of oversight was aggravated by an apparent Corps disinclination to hear bad news. For example, one quality assurance officer who reported widespread violations and problems was relieved of his duties by the Corps and sent home.
“Corps records portray a Wild West, anything-goes atmosphere where fraud was encouraged and corners were not just cut, they were bulldozed,” Erickson added. PEER is asking for a Pentagon-level review of how the Corps oversaw clean-up operations. “Since the Corps maintains there were no problems, there will be no lessons learned without outside investigation.”