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Wetlands rule would favor private restoration

The Bush administration proposed rules to have developers who destroy wetlands or streams and are required to replace them to pay other businesses to do the work — a practice viewed with concern by activists.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration is encouraging developers who destroy wetlands or streams and are required to replace them to pay other businesses to do the work.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency issued proposed regulations Monday that are intended to promote companies that specialize in creating swamps, marshes and streams.

Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said he hopes the number of businesses engaged in “mitigation banking” will double. About 300 such businesses now exist.

Developers could buy credits from such companies to compensate for the bogs, swamps, marshes and other types of wetlands and streams they fill in.

This is the first time the government has issued a rule spelling out what professional standards for wetlands compensation should be required under the Clean Water Act.

George Dunlop, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary, said greater use of mitigation banking would make restoration work more predictable and consistent.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found last year the Army Corps could not ensure that the 40,000 acres of wetlands restoration work required each year since 1983 is actually taking place.

With the proposed regulations, the government is turning to private businesses to improve compliance.

“I believe I’m going to love it,” said John Ryan, president of Land and Water Resources Inc., in Rosemont, Ill., a company that specializes in such work. “It’s great for the environment and for us. Now everybody has to be held to the same high standards that we are.”

Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert with the National Wildlife Federation, said the rule is too eager to adopt mitigation banking as an ideal approach.

“It sets it up almost on a pedestal. It says that if you’re going to use a mitigation bank, it’s almost an automatic OK,” she said. “This is a real business-friendly rule, not only for mitigation bankers but also developers.”

The lower 48 states in pre-colonial times had an estimated 220 million acres of wetlands and streams, but 115 million acres of them had been destroyed by 1997, according to government estimates.

President Bush promised on Earth Day in 2004 to restore or protect as much as 3 million acres of wetlands over the next five years.

The administration now claims to have reversed the government’s estimated loss of 58,500 acres of wetlands annually.

But the National Wildlife Federation says the nation is still losing 130,000 acres of wetlands a year. The group said the administration is including in its count of wetlands “open water systems” such as new lakes, reservoirs and golf and stormwater retention ponds.