Boston — Governor Deval Patrick, who campaigned on a platform of engaging citizens in government, is about to enact sweeping changes to the Commonwealth’s wetlands regulations that eliminate the long-standing right of townspeople to appeal state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) wetlands decisions. DEP is now considering the plan and will accept public comments until August 13.
“The governor wants to eliminate the right of citizens to appeal bad wetlands decisions by the state Department of Environmental Protection,” explained Becky Smith of Clean Water Action. “The right of citizens to appeal is essential to protecting wetlands, and citizens are justifiably alarmed by his plan.”
In the 1960s, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to adopt a wetlands protection law. The Wetlands Protection Act is one of the oldest environmental statutes in the Commonwealth. It recognizes that wetlands are the people's water resources, not just the developers' private property. Wetlands filter clean drinking water supplies, prevent flooding and storm damage, and support diverse wildlife. They are comparable to tropical rain forests in their biological productivity. Since Colonial times, nearly a third of the commonwealth’s wetlands have been destroyed.
Under the current regulations, ten or more residents of a town can appeal a Conservation Commission wetlands decision to DEP, and then can appeal the DEP decision to an independent state agency, the Division of Administrative Law Appeals, if they believe that DEP’s permit decision doesn’t protect the wetlands. The proposed regulations would take away this right of citizen appeal.
“It’s clear that citizen involvement in the state’s review procedures makes for better permits and stronger environmental protection,” said Jay McCaffrey, Director of Massachusetts Sierra Club. “Realistically, citizen involvement is only meaningful if there is a right of appeal – an avenue to challenge DEP decisions.”
In 2005, former Governor Mitt Romney adopted changes to the wetlands regulations that made it hard for citizens to bring administrative appeals to protect wetlands. Now, Governor Patrick’s proposed changes will make it even harder. They will prevent local residents from challenging bad wetland decisions by DEP. They will allow DEP to review its own decisions by removing wetland appeals from the independent Division of Administrative Appeals. Overall, they will handicap the efforts of environmental groups to protect wetlands.
“It is a dangerous precedent to eliminate independent reviews of agency actions,” said Kyla Bennett, Director of New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “This is just one of many steps the governor is taking to reduce citizen involvement in environmental protection, and we are extremely concerned.”
Environmental leaders are encouraging the public to register their displeasure with the proposed changes on Governor Patrick’s website and to contact their state legislators. In a year, Governor Patrick’s administration will evaluate the wetlands regulatory changes and decide whether to extend those to other environmental programs, according to materials released by his office.