Federal wetlands regulators have dropped a bombshell on environmentalists with a little-publicized proposal to relax restrictions on filling in certain wetlands along the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast to speed recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s unethical, illegal, immoral, unsustainable and they’re simply doing it to make the fat cats richer faster,” said Derrick Evans, executive director of a Gulfport, Miss., community group that plans to fight the proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps’ proposal would allow property owners and developers to skirt the conventional "regional general permit" process for any projects that fill up to 5 acres of “low-quality” wetlands in the six southernmost Mississippi counties. Especially galling to environmentalists: The new process would also eliminate the requirement for public notice of such projects.
Vital to ecosystems for their role in filtering runoff, controlling floods and decreasing erosion, wetlands are a hot topic all along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Not only was the flooding from Hurricane Katrina exacerbated by the extensive loss of marshes and bogs to centuries of development in the region, the storm claimed thousands of acres of remaining wetlands.
Last year's deadly hurricane also destroyed 70,000 homes and tens of thousands of other buildings in Mississippi. A desire to streamline the rebuilding process in the wake of Katrina is behind the proposed change in wetlands rules, said Jason Steele of the Corps' Mobile, Ala., office.
"At this point, the housing demands are pretty great, so this is just a way to help out with that situation," said Steele, noting that the proposal "in all likelihood will change dramatically" after the current 30-day period for public comment closes.
The vanishing wetlandsSteele said the post-Katrina workload on his short-staffed office has been intense, with just four project managers available to oversee work in the six Mississippi counties: Hancock, Harrison and Jackson, which abut the Gulf of Mexico; and Pearl River, Stone and George to the north. The Corps is also grappling with a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that muddied the federal agency's authority in regulating virtually all of the nation's wetlands, a sweeping power it had claimed under the 1972 Clean Water Act.
The current permit process to fill wetlands is supposed to take 120 days or less, Steele said, but is dragging out to as long as eight months. "We understand that in the very near future, developers will be coming in greater numbers," he said.
The change in procedure would allow property owners to decide on their own that any wetlands in planned developments are 5 acres or less and of "low quality," and proceed quickly to the building phase. The proposal covers virtually all land uses from houses to shopping centers. Tidal wetlands, historic sites and any known habitat of endangered or threatened species are excluded.
Lawmaker ‘absolutely shocked’
"I was absolutely shocked," said state Rep. Frances Fredericks of Gulfport, who said she learned about the proposal after an Oct. 12 meeting between environmentalists and Corps officials.
"We've just had the worst disaster this country has ever had," she said. "People are taking advantage of that to come in and get permits, pushing and pushing to get permits all in the name of recovery to do things they wanted to do for a long time."
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The meeting was sought by Evans' group, Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, the Sierra Club, elected officials and others to complain about what they saw as lax or non-existent enforcement of wetlands regulations in the crush of post-Katrina rebuilding.
"Basically, at this meeting, they tell us they have no ability to do enforcement," said Howard Page, the Sierra Club's regional conservation chairman and a member of the club's state board. Instead, he said, they were told of the proposal to lessen wetlands regulation.
“Everyone kind of all at once dropped their jaw and looked at it,” Page said. “The proposed change would codify the lack of enforcement.”
Gulfport attorney Robert Wiygul, who has represented numerous environmental groups and was at the meeting, said he also was shocked: “This thing is crazy.”
Area builders don’t think so. Although he had not yet seen the Corps proposal, Don Halle, the newly elected vice president of the Home Builders Association of the Gulf Coast, said, “If they would do that, it would certainly help out in a large way. Virtually everything where we’re located could be deemed wetlands the way they do it.”
But Evans, Page, Wiygul and a number of other environmentalists and wetlands experts contacted by MSNBC.com questioned the Corps proposal on several grounds.
“Five acres is quite a lot,” said Dr. Denise Reed, a University of New Orleans geologist who specializes in wetlands. “Five acres doesn’t sound like a lot but we know from other areas of the coast that multiple small impacts like this cumulatively can be very damaging.”
The jump in size from a half-acre to five also caught the attention of Chris Lagarde, a biologist who handles environmental issues for Congressman Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose district includes his hometown of Bay St. Louis. “When they permit 5 acres at a time they always say there’s no going to be any impact, but when you put 10 of them together, you’ve impacted 50 acres,” he said.
Evans said his group’s chief concern when it comes to filling in wetlands is the potential for flooding. “People died unnecessarily in my watershed because of the Corps’ previous willingness to develop housing in places where housing does not belong," he said. “Floodwaters that instead would have been dispersed ended up in my mother’s living room, 4 miles from the beach.”
Proposal is fluid, Corps official says
The Corps’ Steele said the acreage issue is one that could well be changed as a result of public comment during the 30-day period. “If people suggest maybe an acre might be more environmentally friendly and that’s a consistent comment that we receive then we’ll take that into consideration and we’ll probably revise it down to an acre,” he said.
The environmentalists’ concern that the new permit rules would eliminate a public notification and comment process when such wetlands are to be filled is well-founded, Steele said. “There would not be any notice for these general permits," he said. “There’s no notification process.”
“The loss of public participation was the red flag for everybody,” Page said. “That’s the only way we can do anything.”
Without knowing what wetlands are being filled, the environmentalists say, they can’t monitor and challenge the permits and make sure that only true “low-quality” areas will be affected. “Did you ever meet a developer that thought something was high-quality wetlands?” Wiygul asked rhetorically.
Steele said the new process would still call on the Corps to “verify” a developer’s own assessment of wetlands quality, known as a “delineation,” usually performed by environmental consultants that the Corps has had a hand in training. “If we don’t consider it a low-quality wetland, it would go through the standard individual process,” he said.
One such consultant, Patrick Chubb of Biloxi, Miss., who performs about a hundred delineations and related studies a year, doubted that the Corps would give very close scrutiny to many of the applications processed under the new rules. Currently, at the half-acre limit, “they always have the opportunity (to review the delineation) if they choose to. Most of the time, I would say they don’t.”
Chubb was among a number of sources who had not heard about the proposal until contacted by MSNBC.com. Federal and state officials outside the Corps were notified of the plan by letter, according to the proposal itself. But Steele said other parties would only have been informed only if they had signed up in advance for e-mail alerts or happened to click on link to “Public Notices” on the Corps’ Mobile district Web site.
Chubb said he was surprised he had not heard of the plan because he deals frequently with Corps officials and prides himself on staying abreast of all such issues. Reed also was surprised to first learn of the proposal from MSNBC.com, especially since she sits on an environmental advisory board to the Corps. Her fellow board member, Kenneth Babcock of Ducks Unlimited, also had not seen the Corps proposal until it was e-mailed to him, but he said the panel has a national focus and the Mississippi proposal appeared to be “more regional in nature” and appeared to adequately balance environmental concerns with economic ones.
News to congressman's staff
Nor had Lagarde of Rep. Taylor’s staff seen the proposal until contacted by MSNBC.com. He said he planned to look into it immediately. “I’m not sure where this originated but I suspect it has something to do with all the condos that want to come to town, all the golf courses that want to come to town,” he said.
Lauren Thompson of the state’s Department of Marine Resources said her agency was in the middle of reviewing the proposal and would comment on it during the review period.
But the Corps plan “is such a significant proposal and it’s so unprecedented that they need to give the public additional time,” said Jeff Grimes of the Gulf Restoration Network, who said his group would ask the Corps to extend the comment period another 30 days.
In the meantime, the Sierra Club, Evans’ group and others are rallying their troops to bombard the Corps with feedback against the proposal.
The notion that wetlands, even low quality wetlands, need to be filled to provide new housing is “a false choice, it’s not real,” Evans said. “It’s because it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper for the developers to get a couple hundred acres of wooded wetlands, fill it in, throw up some housing, throw up some new Wal-Mart, whatever, it’s just more expedient to them ... than doing the more sustainable recovery approach, which is to do redevelopment in the downtown areas.”
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