New protection for thousands of acres of wetland

The US Government is proposing significant new protection for tens of thousands of acres of environmentally valuable wetlands across the United States.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers are proposing to clarify and regulate the types of activities that can harm wetlands, thus closing a major loophole in the Clean Water Act.

Over half the US wetlands have been lost since the late 1700’s, with seven states losing more than 80% of their original wetlands (see related story). A collective term for marshes, swamps, bogs and similar wet land areas generally located between dry land and bodies of water, they filter and clean the water, help to retain flood waters, and harbour emerging fish and shellfish populations.

“The Clinton-Gore Administration is committed to protecting America’s environment,” said EPA Administrator Carol M Browner. “Wetlands are essential to preserving clean and healthy water for all Americans. Unfortunately, due to a legal loophole that has been exploited, an additional 20 000 acres of wetlands have been lost in this country over the last two years. The action we take today strengthens the protection of these vital resources for future generations.”

Today’s proposal will clarify the current regulations under the Clean Water Act, to address environmentally destructive earth-moving activities associated with draining wetlands, such as ditching and in-stream mining.

In August 1993, the EPA and the Corps first announced that Clean water Act permits were required for any discharges associated with draining wetlands. Referred to as the ‘Tulloch’ rule, that definition was challenged by a number of trade associations and overturned in January 1997 by the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Affirmed in June 1998 by the US Court of Appeals, the decision resulted in a loophole in the wetlands regulatory programme, leaving certain forms of environmentally destructive activities unchecked.

Since 1997, the EPA and the Corps estimate that nearly 20 000 acres of wetlands have been destroyed and more than 150 miles of streams channelled without environmental review or mitigation.

“Today’s proposal will allow us to go as far as we can through administrative reforms to close this loophole and protect wetlands,” said Browner. “We also call on congress to strengthen the Clean Water Act to fully protect and restore America’s wetlands.”

The Government’s Clean Water Action Plan has already committed to an annual net gain of 100 000 acres of wetlands beginning in 2005 through wetlands restoration programs.

The proposal to change the definition of dredged materials will soon be published in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment for 60 days. A fact sheet, additional information, and a pre-publication version are available from the EPA’s Office of Water homepage, or by phoning the wetlands helpline at: 800 832 7828.

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