Rushing to ease endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office, U.S. Interior Department officials are trying to review 200,000 comments from the public in just 32 hours, according to an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has called a team of 15 people to Washington this week to pore through letters and online comments about a proposal to exclude greenhouse gases and the advice of federal biologists from decisions about whether dams, power plants and other federal projects could harm species. That would be the biggest change in endangered species rules since 1986.
In an e-mail last week to Fish and Wildlife managers across the country, Bryan Arroyo, head of the agency's endangered species program, said the team would work eight hours a day starting Tuesday to the close of business on Friday to sort through the comments. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's office, according to the e-mail, will be responsible for analyzing and responding to them.
Last week's end to the public comment period initiated the review.
Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, whose own letter opposing the changes is among the thousands that will be processed, called the 32-hour deadline a "last-ditch attempt to undermine the long-standing integrity of the Endangered Species program."
At that rate, according to a committee aide's calculation, 6,250 comments would have to be reviewed every hour. That means that each member of the team would be reviewing at least seven comments each minute.
It usually takes months to review public comments on a proposed rule, and by law the government must respond before a rule becomes final.
"It would seem very difficult for them in four days to respond to so many thoughtful comments in an effective way," said Eric Biber, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Along with other law professors across the country, Biber sent in 70 pages of comment.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall told the AP on Tuesday that the short time for processing the comments was requested by Kempthorne and would set a record.
"There is an effort here to see if this can be completed" before the administration is out, Hall said. He said the goal was to have the rule to the White House by early November. In May, the administration set a Nov. 1 deadline for all final regulations.
How fast the rule is finished could determine how hard it is to undo.
A new administration could freeze any pending rules. But if the regulation is final before the next president takes office, reversing it would require going through the review and public comment period again, which could take months and sometimes requires years.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama already has said he would reverse the proposal. Congress also could overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even longer. Sen. John McCain's campaign has not taken a position on the Bush administration's proposed change in endangered species regulations.
Environmentalists said the move was the latest attempt by the Bush administration to overrule Congress, which for years has resisted efforts by conservative Republicans to make similar changes by amending the law.
Criticism from environmental groups and Democratic leaders prompted the Interior Department to extend the public comment period from 30 days to 60 days.
"Somebody has lit a fire under these guys to get this done in due haste," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive director of Defenders of Wildlife and the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service under former President Clinton.
The Interior Department received approximately 300,000 comments over the 60-day comment period, many critical of the changes. About 100,000 of them were form letters, Hall said.