Secret Army Corps report on Asian carp: How we secured its release

Photo credit: Jason Lindsey

Photo credit: Jason Lindsey

If you have been following the efforts to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, you have probably heard the barge industry and state and federal agencies express confidence that the fish are being held back by the electric fence in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  Prairie Rivers Network has been looking for evidence to support those claims and has found it lacking. Worse yet, the Corps of engineers has been refusing to release results of experiments that would shed light on the matter.

The electric fence is being operated at only half-power due to safety concerns about boaters and barges passing through the electric field. At half-strength the electric field has been shown to deter big fish, but not small ones. Last year the Army Corps of Engineers paid contractors to determine, under laboratory conditions, the voltage required to deter small fish. The contractor delivered its draft final report in September 2010, but the Army Corps announced they have no intention of finalizing it for public release until Fall 2011. By that time the results will be more than a year old!

After attending meetings with Corps officials in Chicago last week we decided it was time to take legal action. At the same time, investigative reporter Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel informed the public about the Corps’ refusal. Teaming up with attorneys for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Prairie Rivers Network filed a formal appeal, giving us the right to sue if the report is not released within 20 business days. It took the Army Corps less than 48 hours to call our attorney with a promise to release the report within 20 business days.

Under the Freedom of Information Act the Corps can legally delete contractors’ opinions and policy recommendations from a draft report, but must release factual information.  In December the Corps attorneys agreed to provide us with a redacted version, but reversed that decision in February in a letter to board member Clark Bullard. For details see NRDC attorney Thom Cmar’s blog.

Asian carp DNA continues to be found beyond the electric fence, and a live 20-lb specimen was found in waters open to Lake Michigan in June 2010. Other Great Lakes States are asking the US Supreme Court to close the locks connecting the canal to Lake Michigan. The effectiveness of the electric fence is still uncertain. The common good is not served by suppressing results of experiments that could reduce that uncertainty.