Boston — One of the first state agencies to submit a plan under a new federal rule is seeking a sweeping grant of authority to pave over wetlands in return for use of mitigation banking, according to regulatory comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed “Umbrella Mitigation Bank Prospectus” would permit destruction of wetlands in exchange for preservation of other land or creation of new wetlands elsewhere in the state to replace what has been destroyed.
One overarching concern is that wetland mitigation fails more often than not. A 2003 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study found that only 17% of the wetland mitigation sites throughout New England were considered to be adequate functional replacements for the filled wetlands.
“Creating artificial wetlands has been aptly compared to trying to turn hamburger back into a cow,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a lawyer and biologist formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Having a wetlands protection strategy that depends heavily on mitigation banking is a recipe for ecological disaster.”
The Maine DOT has submitted its plan to the Corps for approval. In its comments, PEER urges the Corps to reject the Maine DOT approach because it violates basic Clean Water Act standards, pointing to especially anti-environmental features, including –
- Seeking approval for the mitigation bank without disclosing the location of the bank. Maine DOT’s prospectus fails to disclose where their proposed mitigation bank would be located, making public comments on the feasibility of the site, and therefore the bank as a whole, impossible;
- Assuming that off-site mitigation banks are preferable to onsite mitigation. Maine DOT’s prospectus operates on the false assumption that mitigation banks – even if in a completely different watershed than the filled wetlands – are preferred to onsite mitigation; and
- No Demonstration of Qualifications. Maine DOT has not provided evidence that it has the ability to adequately create wetlands that replace functions and values of filled wetlands. In fact, Maine DOT itself has been a large wetland violator.
“Maine DOT regards mitigation banking as a ‘Get-Out-of-Jail-Free’ card for wetlands destruction,” added Bennett, noting that federal wetlands standards are now in flux because of the double-barreled effects of a U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting jurisdiction and Bush administration guidance that has gutted enforcement. “Maine is one of the first states out of the box with a mitigation plan. How the Corps responds will have national significance.”
While the Maine prospectus does not mention any particular project, Maine DOT has previously announced plans to turn the largest undeveloped island on the East Coast, Sears Island, into a cargo port and a mitigation bank. Sears Island has 73 different wetlands, covering 223 acres, most of which would be degraded under Maine DOT’s port plans.