Short version: Stephen Lathrop lives in an area in Illinois that routinely floods and is just as routinely gets declared to be a disaster area. The Army Corps of Engineers – a group that I had hitherto thought, perhaps foolishly, to be somewhat more competent than it’s appearing here – had drawn up a bunch of plans to alleviate the problem. As the Corps had never actually fixed the problem, Mr. Lathrop eventually did it for his local area by buying an old dump, getting the permits to convert it into a lake, and doing the conversion on his own dime (‘dime’ being defined as ‘200,000 dollars’). As a reward, the Corps responded in 1990 by suing Lathrop, despite the fact that his conversion was roughly similar to the Corps’ multiple plans (and, more importantly, worked in 1995 to prevent flooding in Mr. Lathrop’s neighborhood). The Corps eventually handed the entire issue over to the EPA for prosecution, and then the EPA… essentially said to make the lake bigger, and everything would be fine*. So Lathrop spent another 100,000 dollars to expand the lake property… only to be told by the Corps that he couldn’t do that. Now the guy’s almost in bankruptcy… over twenty years after deciding that it’d be great if his neighborhood stopped flooding.
Even shorter version: The Army Corps of Engineers has spent the last two-plus decades punishing a guy for the crime at being better at flood prevention than it is.
As Senator Ron Johnson notes: this is what people mean when they talk about too-big government. Normally I would try to be nice and say that probably nobody intended to wreck Stephen Lathrop’s life… except that after over twenty years of red tape and at least one government agency declining to play along, I can’t help but think that maybe somebody at the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to wreck Lathrop’s life. Certainly they’ve let the situation get to the point where both the Ranking Member AND the Chair of Homeland Security’s Financial and Contracting Oversight subcommittee are asking official questions, which should give you an idea of how badly the Corps stepped in it. The real question is, of course: what other ongoing bureaucratic train wrecks are we missing?
PS: Undoubtedly someone will come along eventually to complain, whine, or pontificate about this particular case. While it will be no doubt amusing to watch them not bring up their real point (rough semantic translation: “SMITE THE HERETIC FOR HIS BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE STATE!!!!!”), I will leave them with one critical observation: the government exists to serve its citizenry, not the other way around. That the Army Corps of Engineers feels that it must prosecute Stephen Lathrop for doing a particular job better than the Corps did – a job that the Corps did not in fact do at all – should not be seen as a condemnation of Mr. Lathrop. It’s a condemnation of the Corps.
*Yes. Shockingly, the EPA is not the main villain in this particular piece. The EPA likes lakes; or to use their term, ‘wetlands.’ The trouble for them is usually trying to convince John and Jane Propertyowners that they should like wetlands, too.
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