Dec. 8, 2006 – Environmental Protection Agency staff will have to jump through hoops when protesting permits that allow for wetland destruction, thanks to a new Agency policy.
An EPA internal directive, made public this week by a government watchdog, requires regional EPA staffers to alert Washington before they can warn the US Army Corps of Engineers that a planned project will harm the environment.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the group that exposed the memo, warns the new procedure will "stifle EPAâ€™s own staff from protesting" wetland destruction.
Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps regulates projects like dams, levees, highways and airports planned for construction in wetlands. During the permit process, regional EPA offices can notify the Corps directly if a proposed permit may violate wetland-protection laws. If the Corps proceeds with the permit despite the EPAâ€™s warning, the regional office can "elevate" the permit dispute for final consideration by EPA headquarters.
But according to a new procedure, EPA staff members wishing to notify Corps of impending pollution must first send their comments to EPA headquarters for review.
In a written comment to The NewStandard, the EPA said the new review process was designed to "improve the exchange of information among headquarters and regional offices."
The EPA defended the changes, saying, "The process does not require headquarters'
approval of elevation letters and, in fact, there has been no reduction in the number of letters being prepared in the regions." TNS was unable to verify that the volume of letters has not changed.
The memo to regional staffers seems to contradict this, however, stating: "HQ review... is intended to ensure consistency with national program regulations, policies, and goals... If HQ does not communicate its concerns within three business days, the Region may proceed with the action."
Despite the EPAâ€™s assurances, Kyla Bennett, New England PEER director and a former biologist at the EPAâ€™s wetland program, cautioned in a press statement that the "added layer of scrutiny by Headquarters will discourage regions from trying to elevate cases."
Since the permit program was implemented in 1992, the elevation of a permit protest has only happened 18 times.
"Given that EPA has formally objected to fewer than twenty permits in sixteen years, this elevation process was hardly a runaway stallion that required corralling," Bennett said.
PEER maintains that the Corpsâ€™s permitting practices are leading to declining protection for wetlands. In April, the group filed suit against the Corps after it ignored a Freedom of Information Act request to release wetlands permitting records since 2003.