The Bush administration will allow some construction of homes, shops, schools, prisons, hospitals and other buildings in flood plains without formal environmental reviews, despite the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.
New regulations issued Friday by the Army Corps of Engineers also let homebuilders and other developers skip the reviews before filling in or altering the course of some small streams.
The waivers will apply only to developments that fill in less than 300 feet of a stream or less than a half-acre of wetlands, ponds or other waters.
Another part of the regulations, approved in coordination with other federal agencies and the White House, waives the formal environmental reviews entirely for coal companies when they bury or reroute streams with their mining wastes. Mines, however, will still have to get written determinations from district Corps engineers that dumping their wastes will have a minimal impact on the environment.
Corps officials say the new regulations' intent is to deter developers from building on larger areas of wetland by offering them smaller ones. For example, formal reviews will now be required for fills greater than 300 feet along streams that flow only part of the year.
John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said the regulations "provide clarity and certainty" while maintaining "essential levels of environmental protection."
Known as Corps "nationwide permits," the new regulations clear the way for broad types of development under the Clean Water Act as long as they have minimal harm on the environment. The regulatory updates are required every five years by Congress. The last updates in 2002 were set to expire this month.
The Corps now waives formal environmental reviews for about 35,000 projects a year, most of them small ventures such as utility lines, roads and mooring buoys, officials said.
But the newest regulations elicited criticism from both environmentalists and developers.
Jan Goldman-Carter, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation, said the regulations could encourage more homebuilding and other development in areas prone to flooding like New Orleans, where Corps-built levees collapsed in 2005.
"We are dismayed that the Army Corps of Engineers is authorizing the destruction of our drinking water sources, streams and wetlands on such a massive scale," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, citing 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams buried or harmed by mining waste.
The National Association of Home Builders complained the Corps had steadily shrunk the amount of wetlands that can be filled without environmental reviews, down from 10 acres a decade ago.
"The Army Corps has whittled down the availability of these permits to the extent that they have become meaningless," said Duane Desiderio, a lawyer for the Home Builders.