Washington, DC — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers badly mishandled a major wetlands delineation, improperly classifying hundreds of acres of Virginia wetlands as uplands suitable for development, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in and assess the Corps’ action.
The complaint involves a roughly 650-acre property on the north side of Route 58, just west of Suffolk, Virginia. The owners plan to build a trucking facility on the property. They initially engaged a consultant and former Corps employee with more than 30 years’ experience delineating wetlands who told them that all but roughly 40 scattered acres were “jurisdictional” wetlands, meaning that the majority of the site could not be filled without a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
The owners then engaged another consultant willing to give a more generous report. The Corps’ Norfolk District ultimately accepted the majority of the second consultant’s report, thus eliminating the need for a Corps review or permit as required by the Clean Water Act. In so doing, the District –
- Violated its own delineation manual. Aerial photographs suggest strong evidence of “long duration” wetland hydrology over multiple years, along with hydric (wetland) soils;
- Ignored the Natural Resource Conservation Service / Virginia Tech “Suffolk City Soil Survey,” which designated nearly the entire site as Rains type soils, characterized by ponding, high clay content, and a perched water table; and
- Neglected to inform EPA. When EPA inquired about discrepancies with the pending delineation, the Norfolk District assured EPA that no decision had yet been made, but later quickly finalized its botched delineation without notifying EPA.
“No state can afford wetland misclassifications that give away hundreds of acres to development – especially Virginia,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais, pointing to EPA estimates that Virginia has already lost nearly half of its historic wetlands which now comprise only 4% of its current land area.
The PEER complaint includes aerial photographs showing vast portions of the property covered with standing water. When paired with relevant precipitation information, it is clear wetland hydrology surface water remains for long stretches during the growing season. Based on the Corps’ own manual, areas ponded for more than 14 days must be considered as having hydric (wetland) soils. In short, the Norfolk District Army Corps mislabeled as “uplands” areas that are clearly wetlands.
“These pictures do not lie,” Dumais added. “EPA shares authority with the Corps for determining what areas are wetlands, so it has strong stake in ensuring that delineations are correct. With such a massive amount of acreage and such obvious evidence of ponding, we expect EPA to intervene and do the right thing. We just hope EPA acts quickly, before Virginia loses these important wetlands forever.”