Army Corps Seeks to Relax Gulf Wetlands Protections

Gulf wetlands may be at greater risk under a new Army Corps proposal.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has devised a proposal that would permit property owners and developers to fill in up to five acres (approx. two hectares) of “low-quality” wetlands when undertaking projects in the six southernmost counties of Mississippi, according to an MSNBC report. The proposal, intended to speed recovery from Hurricane Katrina, allows developers to decide on their own whether or not their wetlands are low-grade enough to bypass conventional regulations. Under the plan, public notification of the developments would also no longer be required.

Mississippi lost some 70,000 homes and tens of thousands of other buildings to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, reports the article. Jason Steele with the Corps’ office in Mobile, Alabama, explains that the suggested change in wetland rules is an attempt to streamline the rebuilding effort. He says the proposal still requires an Army Corps environmental consultant to verify a developer’s own evaluation of wetland quality. Yet Patrick Chubb, a consultant for the Corps who makes some 100 such assessments a year, does not think the agency will closely scrutinize many of the applications submitted under the new process. Even under the current system, he notes, “they always have the opportunity [to review the assessment] if they choose to. Most of the time, I would say they don’t.”

Wetlands provide a wide range of ecosystem services, including filtering runoff, preventing erosion, and controlling floods. Many environmentalists contend that the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina was in fact worsened as a result of past decisions to destroy bogs and marshes in the name of development. “People died unnecessarily in my watershed because of the Corps’ previous willingness to develop housing in places where housing does not belong,” says Derrick Evans, executive director of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives (TCCI), a local non-profit seeking to revitalize coastal Mississippi’s Turkey Creek community and watershed.

Jeff Grimes with the Gulf Restoration Network, a coalition of groups dedicated to protecting and restoring the resources of the Gulf of Mexico, says his organization will petition the Corps to extend the proposal’s current 30-day public comment period by another month. The little-publicized Corps plan “is such a significant proposal and it’s so unprecedented that they need to give the public additional time,” Grimes says. The Sierra Club, TCCI, and other groups are also joining forces to fight the proposal.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.