Interior's Silence on Corps Plan
Norton Never Submitted Fish and Wildlife Critique
of Controversial Proposal to Relax Wetlands Rules
Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2002; Page A05
In October, after the Army Corps of Engineers
floated a controversial proposal that would relax a
series of wetlands protection rules, the Fish and Wildlife
Service drafted comments denouncing the plan as scientifically
and environmentally unjustified.
The service's 15-page salvo warned that the Corps proposal
would "result in tremendous destruction of aquatic
and terrestrial habitats," sacrificing far too
many streams and swamps for houses, levees and coal
mines. The plan, the comments stated, "has no scientific
But the Corps never received those comments. That's
because Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who oversees
Fish and Wildlife, never submitted them. So today, the
Corps will announce its final version of its controversial
plan without formal input from Interior's key biological
The only input Interior offered was a memo supporting
the coal-mining rule that the wildlife service found
by far the most objectionable.
"Our job is to make sure the secretary gets our
best biological advice, and we did that," said
Marshall Jones, the service's acting director. "We
don't decide what happens next."
Interior spokesman Mark Pfeifle said the department
had hoped to submit formal comments on the Corps proposal
but ran out of time before it could finish ironing out
disagreements between its Office for Surface Mining
and the wildlife service over the coal-mining rule.
Pfeifle blamed the mix-up on the Democratic-controlled
Senate, which has yet to confirm the assistant secretaries
or agency directors that President Bush has tapped to
oversee the mining office and the wildlife service.
"There were not enough hands on deck to move the
paperwork through the system," he said. "That's
a genuine concern. It hinders our ability to have dialogue
among the agencies."
Pfeifle also pointed out that the mining office's comments
on the Corps proposals -- which had little in common
with the wildlife service's environmental concerns --
were not submitted either. He said the two agencies
hashed out a compromise letter two days before the Corps
deadline, but Interior's political appointees did not
believe it was ready for submission. The two agencies
also have begun to work together on strategies to minimize
the environmental damage caused by strip mining and
mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia.
Bush has vowed to protect wetlands in no uncertain terms,
and his Environmental Protection Agency submitted comments
objecting to the Corps proposal. But environmentalists
and some federal employees argued that the no-comment
situation reflects a new hostility toward environmental
issues at Interior. They said they could not recall
a previous case when Interior failed to supply any formal
comments on an issue as important as the Corps program
that provides 80,000 permits to develop in wetlands
every year. They also noted that even though the wildlife
service's Oct. 15 comments -- which were provided to
The Washington Post by environmentalists who agree with
them -- went well beyond the disputed mining rule, Interior
failed to pass along any of its concerns on other issues.
In general, the critics accused Norton of suppressing
the wildlife service's science to curry favor with industry,
noting that both aides involved with the memo to the
Corps about the coal-mining rule -- Deputy Secretary
Steven Griles and counselor Ann Klee -- had represented
mining interests in the past.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, a National Wildlife Federation
vice president who was Fish and Wildlife director under
President Bill Clinton, said Interior would not have
abstained from commenting on a major wetlands issue
during her tenure.
"This is just nuts," Clark said. "For
Interior to stop Fish and Wildlife from commenting on
something of this magnitude and importance, that's really
Everyone agrees that the Corps proposals are extremely
important. Under the Clean Water Act, anyone who wants
to drain or fill wetlands must first obtain a permit
from the Corps, which is supposed to make sure the permitted
activities do not create significant harm to the environment.
Today, the Corps will finalize its rules that determine
when developers and other applicants are eligible for
"general permits," which are virtually automatic,
and when they must seek "individual permits,"
which are somewhat more onerous.
In March 2000, the Clinton administration forced the
Corps to propose some revisions to the general permit
program to enhance protections for streams, bogs and
other wetlands, which tend to provide wildlife habitat,
filter drinking water and absorb floods. The revisions
would have eliminated general permits for projects in
floodplains, or projects that affect more than a half-acre
of wetlands or more than 300 feet of streams. They also
would have required all permitees to "mitigate"
as many acres of wetlands as they destroy. Environmentalists
were delighted, but the National Association of Home
Builders filed suit.
In May 2001, the Corps, never known for environmental
activism, proposed a new plan that eliminated the 300-foot
and mitigation rules, weakened other restrictions but
still promised the permit program would have minimal
impact on the environment. The idea, Corps officials
said, was to reduce the bureaucratic review processes
for minor projects, allowing regulators to spend more
time analyzing projects with more significant ecological
"We think these new changes are basically about
reducing paperwork," said Susan Asmus, a vice president
for the home builders group. "I don't know if I'd
say they'll have no impact on the environment, but I
don't think they'll have much impact."
Officials at the EPA and Fish and Wildlife did not agree.
EPA dashed off a critical comment. Led by federal program
activities chief Benjamin Tuggle, the wildlife service
also put together its scathing comment letter, questioning
the science behind many of the Corps proposals. Waiving
the 300-foot rule, the letter said, "will encourage
the destruction of stream channels and lead to increased
loss of aquatic functions." Trusting applicants
to enumerate endangered species on their property, it
continued, "could be construed to suggest the Corps
would be abrogating its responsibilities under the Endangered
Species Act." Allowing general permits for flood-control
projects, it warned, would confer carte blanche upon
"a range of undefined, unlimited activities."
The letter reserved its harshest comments for proposed
general permits for surface-mining operations. It argued
that the Corps' own data "speak overwhelmingly"
against the rules, showing that mining operations authorized
with general permits had destroyed thousands of acres
of aquatic habitat and many miles of streams, "far
exceed[ing] the Corps' predictions," affecting
as many as 50 threatened or endangered species. It also
chided the Corps for its "lack of basic knowledge
of the effects of these permitted losses on the environment."
On Friday, Tuggle said he was encouraged by the wildlife
service's improved relationship with the Mining Office,
but he was clearly disappointed that Interior had failed
to challenge the Corps with formal comments. Fish and
Wildlife, an agency dominated by biologists who tend
to tilt green on environmental issues, has an often
tense relationship with Norton and her aides, most notably
over oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Fish and Wildlife is getting rolled," a federal
Pfeifle said Norton is committed to protecting wetlands
and other natural resources. But he said she is also
committed to developing natural resources such as oil,
gas and coal, a commitment to energy production he suggested
was lacking in the Clinton administration. "We're
trying to restore the balance," he said.
Pfeifle said environmentalists are unfairly caricaturing
public servants like Klee, who worked for years as an
environmental counsel in the Senate after representing
the American Mining Congress, and Griles, who represented
America's largest renewable energy company as well as
several mining firms. But Joe Lovett, a lawyer battling
mining companies in Appalachia, said the no-comment
confusion did not suggest a deep environmental commitment.
"That's just amazing," said Lovett, who recently
challenged a general permit that allowed a firm to bury
six miles of streams in Kentucky. "They're abdicating