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"There are lies, damned lies and statistics" and the sage who said that could add "bureau-speak" as well after spending an agonizing evening mulling over statistical interpretations about the Army Corps of Engineers and its wetlands policies.

At issue? Public comments are needed by Tuesday concerning the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to replace its wetland permit procedure (NWP 26) with a new set of rules called NWP 40.

PEER (the Public Employees for Environmental Reform) doesn't like the proposed changes and issued an Aug. 9 "report card" that charges, among other things, that the Corps is granting more development permits than ever and denying almost none; that permit inspections have dropped "nearly 40 percent" nationwide and "litigation to remedy unauthorized wetlands nosedived nearly 80 percent between 1992 and 1998."

The Corps, not unexpectedly, denies the charges and says the figures were "taken out of context."

True, the Corps denies few developers. "Less than 1 percent of the applications for at least the last five years," said John Studt of the Corps, who directs the wetlands program. But that is "a reflection of our success in working with developers to revise their applications so projects can meet the law's environmental standards while allowing reasonable development of private property."

The Corps' shift to nationwide and regional permits, rather than permits specific to each local project, thus cutting local reviews of each plaza and subdivision, is defended by Studt, saying, "Most projects require (wetlands) mitigation" and to save time and red tape "many developers specifically design projects to meet pre-established criteria. . . . All in all, the general permits mean the government is working smarter."

The Corps says PEER numbers on inspections are too low. Inspections were not cut by 40 percent, but 65 percent due to "increased cooperation and reduction of duplicate activities among state and federal agencies. . . . Corps inspections are generally limited to situations where the risk of environmental damage is greatest."

As for filing lawsuits, the Environmental Protection Agency does that better, the Corps says, hinting that the EPA won the turf war to retain that bureaucratic enclave.

OK, but do the proposed wetlands rules give too much away?

According to the National Audubon Society, they do.

"The proposed permits probably represent less protection for wetlands . . . because of the loopholes," said Julie M. Sibbing, senior policy specialist on Wetlands and Agriculture for Audubon. NWP 40 needs "serious changes . . . to protect fragile wetlands from development better than NWP 26."

She cites these problems:

The proposed new rules would allow destruction of rural wetlands, two acres at a time, for the purpose of increasing agricultural production. Vague language would allow this permit to be used repeatedly on a single property.

Additionally, prairie potholes, playa lakes and vernal pools are left unprotected.

These areas (all needed by ducks, for example) need strong wetland protection. NWP 40 needs to be rewritten to allow only minimal impacts.

Wetland destruction can be mitigated by permit applicants planting trees in upland protective buffers along streams.

This obviously contradicts the federal government's general principle of allowing "no net loss" of the nation's wetlands. Moreover, reconstructed wetlands usually create man-made habitat with less biodiversity than the original wetland, Sibbing says, and "tree replacement in upland areas cannot even begin to replace what was lost from a wetland."

Stream protection harmed: A developer can bury a narrow stream habitat for half a mile and be required to restore only one acre of wetland.

In addition, there is no assurance that the public will hear of proposed stream burying projects, Sibbing says. Intermittent and perennial stream destruction and modification of more than 250 feet (or less) of stream needs environmental review and public comment.

Commitment: The Corps stated repeatedly that it will not commit to monitor mitigation. Additionally, the Corps will not postpone issuing a permit if it hasn't had the chance to check the applicant's wetland determination and the projected impacts.

Audubon says no permit should be issued without complete review of the wetland status and projected impact. Then the Corps needs to monitor and enforce the terms of the permit.

If this concerns you, write to President Clinton asking him to pressure the Corps to strengthen their proposed permit process. The White House's address is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20500 (fax: 202-456-2461).

Detailed comments to the Corps should be mailed to John Studt, Chief of Regulatory Branch, HQUSACE, ATTN: CECW-OR, 20 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20314-1000.

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