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Published: Tuesday, 1/15/2002

Rules lessen restrictions on developing wetlands

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

WASHINGTON - Developers no longer will have to restore or establish wetlands for every acre they drain or fill under regulations issued by the Bush administration yesterday.

The new Army Corps of Engineers rules, which revoke some Clinton-era requirements, will enable developers to win speedy government approval for draining and filling permits under the Clean Water Act if the effect on streams or marshes is minimal.

Instead of requiring acre-for-acre restoration on each project, the regulations require only that there be “no net loss” of wetlands in any of the Corps' 38 U.S. districts, which are established on the basis of watersheds rather than state boundaries.

John Studt, chief of the Corps' regulatory branch, said the permit requirements “will do a better job of a half-acre of wetlands. Until 2000, developers had to get government approval only if more than three acres of wetlands were affected.

The regulations eliminate some restrictions on development in flood plains and revoke a prohibition on filling more than 300 linear feet along any stream.

Developers now will be able to seek waivers allowing them to fill up to a half-acre of any stream that doesn't flow year-round. For example, an eight-foot-wide stream that dries up during a portion of the year could be filled for up to a half-mile.

Coal mines will now have to get a written determination from a district engineer that dumping mine wastes in wetlands will have a minimal effect. Such fills will have to be replaced with new wetlands elsewhere.

Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert for the National Wildlife Federation, said the regulations will allow more wetland areas to be paved over. “These permits certainly signal the end of `no net loss' as a policy of the United States,” she said.

Jim McGowan, a Sylvania developer, said he does not anticipate widespread effect in the Toledo area because most remaining wetlands are in flood plains.

“Around Toledo, unless you're near the lake, there's really not a lot of it.”

Andy Ware, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said his office will have to review the changes before it could comment.

“We're going to have to take a good look at what all this means for our policies,” he said.

Ken Silfven, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said the only effect in Michigan would involve coastal (lakeside) wetlands, where the state shares jurisdiction with the Corps of Engineers. Inland wetlands in Michigan are overseen solely by the state.

“We've not actually seen the final version” of the revised regulations, he said.

Susan Asmus, a vice president of the National Association of Home Builders, described the new permits as a positive step.

“This is the first time in the 25 years of the program that the Corps has not added further limitations or more paperwork requirements,” she said.

Ms. Asmus said her group, however, will continue to press its lawsuit challenging Corps wetlands regulations. She said they still don't streamline the process enough.

The regulations were adopted without any formal comment from the Interior Department. The Fish and Wildlife Service had objected to several of the measures, but the objections were never forwarded. Instead, Interior Secretary Gale Norton sent word that she supported the plan, said Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for the department.

The Fish and Wildlife Service complained in an Oct. 15 memo the ecological effects of the changes had not been assessed adequately. The agency said it “does not believe the Corps has sufficient scientific basis to claim” that the new, expedited permits will “cause only minimal impact on the nation's natural resources.”

Ms. Norton's staff “did not have enough time” to reconcile that memo with contrary remarks by the Office of Surface Mining, so no formal recommendation was made, Mr. Pfeifle said.



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