Washington, DC -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is issuing more permits to develop America's shrinking natural wetlands but is ordering fewer restorations and pursuing less enforcement for violations, according to an analysis of agency records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) as part of a comprehensive 20-year tabulation of Corps wetland permit and enforcement performance -- from 1982 through 2002.
At a time when court decisions are narrowing federal authority to protect wetlands, the Bush Administration is placing more discretion in the hands of the Army Corps in deciding how to protect this vital, but diminishing national resource. The latest figures show a continuation in disturbing trends of more development approvals without field visits and greater reliance on categorical exclusions that permit wetland loss without further examination or review:
· The number of "Jurisdiction Determinations," where the Corps decides whether wetlands are protected from development, increased by nearly half (49%) in the past decade, yet there has been a sharp decrease (39%) in permits in which environmental evaluations were required;
· Nearly four times as many Jurisdictional Determinations are now made by phone or letter from the Corps office, without a field visit to the affected land; and
· Even though the Corps is issuing fewer permits requiring evaluations, it is denying fewer than ever before. The permit denial rate for the Corps is now miniscule (less than 2%) and has dropped by nearly four-fifths (78%) in the past decade.
"Increasingly, the Corps wetlands program is becoming a paper exercise," stated PEER Board member Magi Shapiro, a former long-time Corps Project Manager.
Even with a greater volume of permits, the Corps' enforcement of permit conditions also appears to be on the wane:
· In 2002, there were 421 cases of noncompliance with the permit out of 4,461 standard permits and letters of permission issued by the Corps. Yet for the third year in a row, the Corps did not initiate litigation in a single case; and
· Since 1992, reported permit violations fell by almost half (48%) and the number of inspections dropped by more than one fourth (27%).
"Why should a permittee honor the terms and conditions of the permit when the Corps will either fail to make a compliance inspection, or, in the best of circumstances, require some minor permit modification that legalizes the violation," added Shapiro. "Complex permits require careful professional work on the part of the Project Managers who are continually frustrated by their inability to enforce the permit."