NRDC Blasts Army Corps of Engineers Proposal to Weaken Wetlands Protection

WASHINGTON (August 8, 2001) - Today's proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to weaken wetland and stream protections would put the interests of corporate polluters ahead of the environment and public health, said NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The proposal would make it easier for developers, mining companies and other industries to destroy wetlands or streams without an opportunity for public review.

"Today the Bush administration stands with developers and mining interests against flood prevention, clean drinking water, and protecting valuable habitat for hundreds of endangered, threatened and commercially vital species," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project.

In March 2000, the Clinton administration issued new nationwide permits (NWPs) regulating certain development and industrial activities in wetlands and streams. The rules, completed after years of development and public comment (and a lawsuit by NRDC), were more stringent than earlier NWPs.

The Clean Water Act authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to issue nationwide general permits for activities that are similar and would have "minimal adverse environmental effects when performed separately, and … only minimal cumulative adverse effect on the environment." Activities that receive general permits do not require public notice and comment and undergo less stringent review by the Army Corps than individual Clean Water Act permits.

The Corps' proposed changes include allowing Corps districts to waive requirements that are mandatory under existing general permits. The requirements include:

  • The 300-foot limit on stream destruction. A project could channelize, excavate or fill a mile (or more) of stream under a general permit that currently allows only "minimal adverse effect."

  • Proposed development in floodplains to demonstrate compliance with Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements. The Corps proposes compliance requirements but does not require proof of such compliance.
  • Replacing every acre of wetlands destroyed with an acre of wetlands. The one-to-one requirement is one of the few concrete standards to limit the Corps' greatly abused discretionary authority. A General Accounting Office study released in May documented widespread failure by the Corps to ensure that lost wetlands are replaced. In June, a National Research Council report found that the national goal of "no net loss" of wetlands functions is not being met and that Corps data was insufficient to demonstrate that wetlands was actually taking place.

"The Bush administration and the Army Corps appear bent on removing as many objective, measurable standards of wetland protection as possible from the nationwide permit program," Stoner said. "If these decisions are made at the whim of an individual Corps official, wetlands will disappear rapidly in many parts of the country."

While the administration has proposed several ways to weaken wetlands protections, it also has failed to address some of the most glaring problems with the permit program. For example, the practice of mountaintop removal mining, which has been responsible for destroying more than 1,000 miles of streams in West Virginia alone, has primarily taken place under a nationwide permit intended to allow only "minimal cumulative adverse effect on the environment." Today's proposal does not adequately address the issue of mountaintop removal mining.

On August 1, the Army Corps released a draft environmental impact statement of its nationwide permit program, giving the public only 45 days to comment on its draft assessment - which is hundreds of pages long. However, the Corps decided not to wait for the finalized environmental impact statement before proposing changes to the permit program.

"The Bush administration is so focused on weakening wetlands protections that it is not even waiting for completion of its own impact study," Stoner said. "It is in an incredible hurry to cripple protections that have barely been in effect for a year."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.