Study Shows Bush Administration Fails to Protect Many Waters From Development, Pollution

Evidence shows Corps of Engineers lacked justification for not protecting wetlands, streams


Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice 202-329-1552


Navis Bermudez, Sierra Club 202-246-0888


Christy Leavitt, U.S. PIRG 202-546-9707

The General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report today finding that the US Army Corps of Engineers is failing to protect wetlands, headwaters and other important waters. The report found that although the Army Corps is required under the Clean Water Act to protect these waters, the agency is permitting their destruction without explaining why it is not following the law, recording the acreage being destroyed or evaluating the natural functions that are lost.

Since January 2003, the EPA and Corps have been following a Bush administration policy directive that jeopardizes Clean Water Act protections by telling agency staff to stop protecting many streams, wetlands, lakes, and other waters unless they first get permission from Washington, D.C. officials. The EPA and Corps claim that the policy is based, at least in part, on a 2001 Supreme Court decision, Solid Waste Agencies of Northern Cook County v. the Army Corps of Engineers (or “SWANCC”), but the terms of the directive go far beyond the holding of that case and jeopardize millions of acres, thousands of miles of streams, and all the rivers, lakes and coastal waters downstream. What the GAO study found is that the US Army Corps of Engineers is not using its legal authority to protect those waters and wetlands that it can still protect after the SWANCC decision.

“In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we know that our nation needs to be increasing – not weakening – protections for waterways that can prevent flooding and provide clean water,” said Navis Bermudez, Sierra Club Clean Water Campaign Representative. “The GAO’s report confirms that the administration is secretly pursuing a policy that favors developers and other industry interests. The administration’s policy needs to be withdrawn and protections extended to the full extent of the law.”

In January 2003, the administration proposed rulemaking to weaken the Clean Water Act’s requirements defining “waters of the United States.” The administration later abandoned this rulemaking and promised key constituents that it would not pursue that course of action again. The GAO report shows that the administration essentially changed the rules after announcing it would not do so by simply ignoring existing law.

“This administration is not very good at keeping promises made to the American people,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. “The President and his appointees promised not to change the Clean Water Act’s rules, but they are shirking that responsibility by just ignoring those rules. In turn, they are breaking the promise of the Clean Water Act, which is to protect all of the nation’s waters, to make them safe for drinking water, for swimming and fishing. This cannot be done when the Corps leaves waters out of the law’s scope.”

The wetlands, streams and other waters that are being destroyed because the Corps is not protecting them are extremely important for our communities’ health and safety. For example, when wetlands are destroyed or filled, they are often replaced by impermeable paving or structures that increase water runoff and can contribute to increased flooding. In addition to protecting homes by storing floodwater, wetlands provide a variety of other benefits: they filter pollutants from our drinking water, and provide habitat for fish, shellfish and wildlife. Wetlands are crucial for clean water, serving as a natural filter absorbing water-borne pollutants and damaging contaminants before the water enters our rivers, lakes and streams.

“Losses of wetlands in many areas of the U.S. are unprecedented, yet the Corps is allowing any of the remaining wetlands to be destroyed in violation of its Clean Water Act obligations without even bothering to figure out why,” said Christy Leavitt, Clean Water Advocate for U.S. PIRG.

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