Washington, DC — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is finalizing new rules allowing the destruction of wetlands and streams and ocean floor to accommodate renewable power facilities, according to a document posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Corps is using a regulatory device designed for actions that have minimal cumulative adverse effects on the environment, but the scope of its draft permits could permit massive losses of freshwater swamps, streams, and ocean habitat.
The Corps’ draft would establish what are called Nationwide Permits for land-based renewable power generators (listed as wind, solar and geothermal power), offshore wind and solar arrays and tidal or other “hydrokinetic energy generation facilities.” In most areas of the country, Nationwide Permits limit or eliminate review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Marine Fisheries Service.
“This would enable green power to gratuitously create brown consequences,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, arguing that wetlands and coastal protections have not inhibited renewable power siting. “The thinking behind this proposal is that green energy facilities have no other environmental impacts but that is demonstrably untrue when you consider the impacts wind turbines have on birds or the heavy water usage of many solar plants.”
Under the Clean Water Act, a permit must be denied if there is a practicable alternative that will cause less harm. Moreover, if the proposed activity is not water dependent, there is a legal presumption that less environmentally damaging alternatives exist. Many of the projects covered under the proposed Nationwide Permits are not necessarily water dependent and can have major adverse effects, including –
- The Corps would allow loss of an acre of wetland per project, an area much larger than most other Nationwide Permits. For example, the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound would build 130 industrial-sized turbines covering more than 25 square miles of ocean, yet the turbine poles themselves occupy only two-thirds of an acre and the entire project would qualify for a permit;
- Sensitive areas can be piecemealed to death with thousands of individual projects, each receiving a Nationwide permit, such as dispersed photovoltaic arrays; and
- The exemptions also cover parking lots, roads, power lines and other “attendant facilities.”
“This is all about paving over places that are needed for our ecological health,” said New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former regional wetlands coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “These exemptions are not narrowly constructed. They are written to create open-ended blanket exemptions that are not subject to further review. The need to move from carbon-based power should not become a pretext for trashing habitat.”
These Corps proposals are still in draft form but are intended for submission to the Federal Register for a 60-day public comment period. The Corps has made no public announcements about its timetable.