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Bush Administration Rolls Back Clinton Rules for Wetlands
WINNIE HU . NY Times . 16 january 2002

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 — The Bush administration announced today that it would ease some Clinton administration regulations covering wetlands and streams, saying the changes would reduce unnecessary paperwork.

John Studt, chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the revisions "will do a better job of protecting aquatic ecosystems while simplifying some administrative burdens for the regulated public."

The steps outlined today by the Army Corps angered environmental advocates, who accused the administration of capitulating to the interests of developers and miners and jeopardizing ecologically sensitive areas.

The new rules would streamline the approval of certain development projects by giving more of them a green light under a general nationwide permit. That permit authorizes a developer to proceed — and avoid levels of scrutiny by the public and federal agencies responsible for resource management — if the project is said to have minimal impact on the environment.

Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said the Army Corps, which is completing a five-year updating of its permit criteria, continues to embrace a policy that requires developers to replace or set aside wetlands to offset their projects. The policy that there should be "no net loss" of wetlands was enunciated in 1989 by President George Bush and has been embraced by his son.

"The president is fully committed to the `no net loss of wetlands' policy that was reaffirmed today by the Army Corps of Engineers," Mr. McClellan said.

He noted that last week Mr. Bush committed the federal government to co-finance an $8 billion plan to restore the Florida Everglades.

Under the changes announced today, developers will not be required to provide a one-for-one replacement for the acreage affected by individual wetlands projects, as long as that goal is met in the broader region.

Under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps is responsible for granting permits to anyone who seeks to drain or fill wetlands or streams. Wetlands are viewed as an important filter to the water supply, a rich habitat for plants and animals and a valuable release site for flood waters.

In March 2000, the Clinton administration increased restrictions under the general permit program affecting wetlands, limiting the amount of stream bed that may be disrupted without closer review and demanding closer scrutiny of activities in flood plains.

Those revisions are rolled back under the new approach. The Army Corps makes a new distinction between perennial and intermittent streams and relaxes rules on filling streams that do not flow year-round. It eliminates some restrictions on flood-plain development and gives local officials greater authority to approve surface mining projects.

Environmental groups said the administration, under pressure from home builders and coal miners, was reducing its oversight role in the name of slashing bureaucracy.

"It seems like the folks who are dredging and filling in the wetlands have more friends than they used to," said Howard Fox, the managing attorney of Earthfirst, an environmental law firm.

Julie Sibbing, the wetlands lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation, said the Army Corps had forsaken the goal of achieving no net loss of wetlands.

"This arrogant move demonstrates the Corps' complete lack of respect for our country's natural resources and is another example of how this administration is turning its back on protecting our nation's wetlands," Ms. Sibbing said.