"In 1989, George H.W. Bush announced a national policy of 'no net loss' of our country's remaining wetlands. For Earth Day this year, George W. Bush and his administration touted wetlands protection as an important part of their environmental agenda," said Todd Hutchins of Earthjustice. "However, President Bush's action today is a leap in the opposite direction and will result in the destruction – not preservation – of wetlands, streams, and other waters."
At issue is the Clean Water Act's program for nationwide general permits. The Act allows the Army Corps to issue nationwide general permits for activities that fill or degrade wetlands and streams if the activities will have only "minimal adverse environmental effects," both individually and cumulatively. Activities performed under a nationwide permit do not require public notice or comment, and they undergo a much less stringent review – if any – by the Corps than individual Clean Water Act permits.
After years of public comment and debate, in March 2000 the Clinton administration issued new nationwide permits that ensured better environmental protections than earlier permits. Developers currently are in court suing to overturn the March 2000 nationwide permits. Earthjustice has intervened on the side of the government to defend the new permits on behalf of NRDC and Sierra Club.
"Today's reversal of promises – once again by this President – is appalling," said Hutchins. "It makes no sense that on one hand the Bush team is in court defending the new nationwide permits, while on the other hand they are proposing to get rid of some of the very same protections. When it comes to this administration's approach to protecting the environment, it often seems that the right hand doesn't know what the far-right hand is doing."
The new Bush proposal would allow the Corps to waive many of the environmental conditions meant to limit the use of nationwide permits, especially in floodplains and in environmentally sensitive waters.
"Giving the Corps the discretion to ignore key environmental standards is tantamount to eliminating those standards altogether," said Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice legislative counsel. "The Corps rarely follows the law and implements environmental conditions even when they are required by law to do so. It would be foolish for anyone to believe that making these conditions discretionary will provide any protection for wetlands and streams at all."
Despite professed support for wetlands and streams from the current Bush administration, the Corps proposal would increase wetlands losses and stream destruction. Specifically, some of the changes proposed by the Corps include:
- Allowing the Corps to waive the 300-foot limit on stream destruction, meaning a developer could dig or fill a mile (or more) of a stream under a general permit that is only supposed to allow "minimal adverse effects"
- Loosening restrictions on filling wetlands in floodplains
- Allowing coal mining companies to continue to bury and destroy hundreds of miles of streams with mountaintop removal "valley fills" – with virtually no limits or conditions
- Bypassing the minimum requirement that there be at least one acre of wetlands protected or created from every acre destroyed (1:1 acreage mitigation)
Earthjustice is the nonprofit law firm for the environment representing -- without charge -- hundreds of public interest clients, large and small. Earthjustice works through the courts to safeguard public lands, national forests, parks and wilderness areas; to reduce air and water pollution; to prevent toxic contamination; to preserve endangered species and wildlife habitat; and to achieve environmental justice.