Illegal Permit Threatens Lake Powell and West Bay, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (May 18, 2005) -- A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit allows real estate firms to develop thousands of acres in the Florida panhandle without the environmental reviews and public input required by federal law, according to a lawsuit filed today by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

Without proper oversight, development could threaten Northwest Florida's wetlands, lakes, streams and coastal landscapes that make the region such a unique place to live. The long-term prospects for the eagles, red-cockaded woodpeckers, sea turtles, manatees, salamanders and other plant and animal species that flourish in the region would also be in jeopardy.

"Florida's panhandle is a unique, biologically rich area," said Melanie Shepherdson, an NRDC staff attorney. "That's what makes it such a special place for both people and wildlife. Federal law requires the Corps to ensure these irreplaceable resources won't be harmed."

The Corps' general permit, issued in June 2004, provides blanket authorization for development in some 48,000 acres around Lake Powell, West Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay in Walton and Bay counties. The primary beneficiary is St. Joe Company, which owns more than 80 percent of the land in the area and is the largest private real estate holder in the state.

NRDC's suit charges that the Corps' permit violates two federal environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement evaluating potential damage from development; and the Clean Water Act, which requires that damage to waterways be minimal. Both laws require public participation, which the Corps has greatly limited in this case. NRDC is asking the federal court in Jacksonville to invalidate the permit.

"The scope of this carte blanche permit is unprecedented," said David N. Ellenhorn, of Proskauer Rose, a national law firm representing NRDC in the suit. "Federal law requires the Corps to review specific projects to determine their effect on the environment."