Feds Open Probe On Wetlands Permits

By MIKE SALINERO msalinero@tampatrib.com
Published: Aug 29, 2004

TAMPA - After years of complaints about wetlands destruction, Florida environmentalists have been rewarded with a federal investigation into how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for filling wetlands.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recently began a two-pronged investigation into the corps' handling of so-called dredge-and-fill permits.

The investigation was spurred, in part, by complaints from Florida environmental groups who say the corps is allowing widespread development to consume irreplaceable wetlands.

Congress has declared wetlands a critical natural resource that should not be destroyed unless no alternatives exist.

Wetlands help filter water, serve as recharge areas for aquifers, reduce floods and erosion and provide valuable plant and animal habitat.

Chet Janik, assistant director of the GAO Natural Resources and Environment Team, met earlier this month with several Florida groups, including the Council of Civic Associations of Estero, Sierra Club and Wetlands Alert.

He said that the GAO studies could focus only on Florida, or may include other Corps of Engineers districts.

GAO began the investigation in response to requests from U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn.

Lieberman could not be reached for comment.

Public records show he asked GAO to investigate after reading a report by the Council of Civic Associations and the Florida and National Wildlife Federations.

`Road To Ruin´ Report

The study was entitled ``Road to Ruin: How the U.S. Government is Permitting the Destruction of the Western Everglades.´´

In an Aug. 7, 2003, letter to Army Under Secretary Les Brownlee, Lieberman wrote: ``I am extremely troubled by the assertions that the Corps of Engineers and the other federal regulatory agencies have failed to fulfill their statutory mandates, thereby endangering a valuable natural resource ...´´

Oberstar said he became interested in wetlands protection when he worked on the 1972 Clean Water Act while serving as staff administrator for the House Public Works Committee. The committee chairman at the time, Rep. John Blatnik, also of Minnesota, made sure that the act provided strong protections for wetlands.

``I think there are strong indications and very clear evidence that it´s not being carried out with the full vigor that Congress intended in writing it,´´ Oberstar said.

Oberstar requested that GAO look at the effectiveness of the corps wetlands mitigation policy. Mitigation means developers who fill wetlands must either create a new wetland of equal size somewhere else, or they can buy credits in a wetland bank where land is set aside for creation of new wetlands.

Ann Hauck, a member of the Council of Civic Associations, said there are numerous problems with the corps' mitigation methods.

Land that is mitigated is often far away from the land being filled, and often is not of the same type or quality. Some developers have their own mitigation banks, she said, and get credits for mitigating on their own land.

``They are not following the `no net loss of wetlands´ stated in the 1990 National Environmental Policy Act,´´ Hauck said. ``That´s the crux of the whole problem.´´

No Program Standards

Lesley Blackner, an environmental lawyer who won a favorable settlement in a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers in June, said there are no standards for the mitigation program.

``It assumes that all wetlands are of equal value,´´ Blackner said. ``If you talk to experts, it´s easy to create one of these monoculture wetlands. But the really good wetlands - they haven´t figured out how to create those.´´

Marie Burns, assistant division chief of the Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Office, said she has an enforcement section that does nothing but mitigation.

The section, however, is limited by a short staff. For instance, the mitigation enforcement officer in the Tampa office covers all of Southwest Florida.

The district plans to put an enforcement person in Fort Myers when money becomes available.

``We certainly do mitigation,´´ Burns said. ``Are we doing as much as we´d like to? I´d say we´d like to be doing more.´´

Lieberman has asked GAO to look at how the corps determines which wetlands it will regulate. Environmentalists have complained that the agency used a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision to shed its jurisdiction over isolated wetlands - those not connected to streams, rivers, lakes or bays. The court ruled that the corps did not have jurisdiction over a shell pit filled with water that was used as a watering hole for migratory birds.

``The corps in various parts of the country interpreted that decision to start cutting back on their jurisdiction,´´ Blackner said. ``But everything in Florida is connected. All waters either flow into the aquifer or into the ocean ... They´re all waters of the United States.´´

Environmentalists also accuse the corps of rubber- stamping permits for developers. They say the corps often takes the word of the developers' consultants as to whether there are wetlands on the property, what quality they are, and how large.

In the old days, they would make a courtesy visit,'' said Sydney Bacchus, a hydroecologist who has filed dozens of comments on corps projects. ``What they generally would do is the consultant would stake out a line, they [the corps] would stand at one point and say `OK.´ Now they don´t even go out on the property.´´

Burns said corps employees usually go out on large projects, but they don't walk the whole line delineating the wetlands. In some cases, when corps employees are familiar with the area and have worked with the consultants for years, they may issue the permit without visiting the property.

``They may not be going out in the field, but they don´t make those decisions lightly,´´ Burns said.

GAO investigators visited corps' offices in Norfolk, Va., before coming to Florida. Their next stop is Galveston, Texas. Janik said the two studies could take a year to 15 months to complete.

Reporter Mike Salinero can be reached at (813) 259-8303



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