Washington, DC —The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is refusing to release records documenting a continuing decline in America’s shrinking base of natural wetlands, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Corps is the principal agency overseeing development of what are supposed to be federally protected bogs, marshes, swamps, estuaries and lowlands but the suit filed contends that the Corps stopped responding to PEER requests for permit and enforcement records under the Freedom of Information Act several months ago.
“How can the Corps insist that it is doing a good job of protecting wetlands when they will not reveal just what they are doing?” asked PEER General Counsel Richard Condit who filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “The paper trail on the Corps ended in 2002 and that trail pointed straight downhill.”
PEER has maintained a 20-year database of agency records detailing Corps permit and enforcement performance, covering the period from 1982 through 2002. Those numbers showed—
- The number of wetlands restored under Corps auspices has declined by more than half since 1992;
- The Corps permit denial rate is now miniscule. Enforcement actions, inspections and site visits are also at their lowest levels; and
- The Corps has doubled its reliance on Nationwide and Regional Permits (forms of relaxed regulatory review based on categorical exclusions). Meanwhile, individual permits that require in depth environmental evaluations have declined every year.
Last year, the Corps stopped providing updates of their quarterly reports for the years 2003 and 2004. New PEER Freedom of Information Act requests for 2005 data went out earlier this year and have yet to be answered but these requests are not yet ripe for litigation.
The main tool used by the Corps to approve the destruction of a naturally functioning wetland is called mitigation, the promise by a developer to lessen or compensate for the damage by creating or preserving wetlands on site or elsewhere. Relying on mitigation allows President Bush to proclaim that his administration is meeting a “no net wetland loss” goal for the Corps regulatory program. Analysis of Corps records, however, shows little follow-up to ensure that the mitigation promises are kept.
“The Corps wetlands mitigation program is a national joke since developers know that 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 Condit, noting that the Clean Water Act set a goal to achieve zero discharge into wetlands by 1985, a benchmark that has long since passed unfulfilled. “Confronting an agency ethic that all development must be approved, the Corps’ own specialists are among the most deeply frustrated by their inability to enforce the law.”