America's Waters Vulnerable to Development, Pollution

Bush administration policy should be reversed to protect streams, lakes, and wetlands.


Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500
Julie Sibbing, NWF, 202-797-6832
Daniel Rosenberg, NRDC, 202-289-2389, or
Elliott Negin, 202-289-2405
David Willett, Sierra Club, 202-675-6698

Federal documents obtained by four environmental groups reveal that a Bush administration policy directive has eliminated federal Clean Water Act protections for streams, wetlands, lakes and rivers across the nation. In a report released today, the groups provide 15 case studies demonstrating how the administration’s January 2003 policy directive has prompted federal regulators to avoid protecting ponds, lakes, rivers, and entire watersheds from toxic pollution. View the report (3MB pdf file)

The report, Reckless Abandon: How the Bush Administration is Exposing America’s Waters to Harm, was produced by Earthjustice, National Wildlife Federation, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), and Sierra Club.

“The Bush administration is sweeping away 30 years of protection for some of our nation’s most important waters,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. “Polluters have been given a green light to ignore the Clean Water Act, even when it may affect drinking water supplies.”

On January 15, 2003, the Bush administration announced a new policy that directed federal regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to withhold protection from tens of millions of acres of wetlands, streams, and other waters, unless they first get permission from their national headquarters in Washington, DC. The directive made clear that no prior permission is required for EPA or Corps field staff to ignore Clean Water Act protections and allow industrial facilities, developers, and others to pollute, fill, or destroy these waters. In addition, the policy categorically excludes from protection several types of waters found across the country that provide critical habitat for an array of migratory birds, amphibians, and other wildlife.

Today’s report is largely based on information obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted to Corps headquarters and individual Corps districts. The case studies in the report indicate that Corps districts around the country are failing to assert jurisdiction over waters ranging from an 86-acre lake to a 150-mile-long river, to a 4000-acre tract of wetlands and a 70-mile-long canal — leaving these waters and many others across the nation vulnerable to pollution and destruction.

“The Bush administration’s policy is based on the fantasy that if you let polluters dump sewage, oil and other toxic waste into small wetlands and streams, it won’t ultimately wind up in our lakes, rivers and coastal waters,” said Daniel Rosenberg, an NRDC senior attorney. “Americans know better, and that’s why they support strong Clean Water Act protection for our nation’s waterways.”

The threat posed by this policy comes at a time when water pollution continues to be one of the nation’s most serious environmental problems — and a central environmental concern for most Americans.

“It is ironic that while the President is touting his goal of a net gain of wetlands, his administration’s policy is exposing millions of acres of wetlands, rivers, lakes, and streams to destruction,” said Julie Sibbing, a senior legislative representative at the National Wildlife Federation. “An estimated 20 percent of America’s wetlands might be open to pollution and development.”

The EPA has estimated that some 20 million acres of wetlands in the continental United States may lose federal protection under the Bush administration’s policy. In addition, tens of thousands of miles of seasonal and headwater streams and countless numbers of small lakes, and ponds could be left without federal protection from water pollution.

“The Bush administration is pursuing a short-sighted policy aimed at satisfying oil industry and other polluter interests bent on dismantling our fundamental clean water safeguards,” said Robin Mann, chair of Sierra Club’s Clean Water Campaign. “By exposing the types of waters that the Bush administration is sacrificing under this policy — and these are just the tip of the iceberg — we are taking our case to the public and calling on the administration to reverse this harmful policy and restore the longstanding protections to the nation’s waters.”

A recent lawsuit by the oil industry cites the Bush administration’s January 2003 policy to argue that the Clean Water Act’s oil spill prevention program should not apply to many streams, wetlands, and other waters.

Earthjustice is the nation’s largest nonprofit law firm for the environment, working through the courts to safeguard public lands, national forests, parks, and wilderness areas; to reduce air and water pollution; to prevent toxic contamination; and to preserve endangered species and wildlife habitat.

Protecting wildlife through education and action since 1936, the National Wildlife Federation is America’s foremost conservation organization creating solutions that balance the needs of people and wildlife now and for future generations.

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 1 million e-activists and members, served from offices in New York, Washington, Santa Monica and San Francisco.

The Sierra Club’s members are 700,000 of your friends and neighbors. Inspired by nature, we work together to protect our communities and the planet. The Club is America’s oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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