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Comments on the Proposed Reissuance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Nationwide Permits

Comments on the Proposed Reissuance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Nationwide Permits

Comments on the Proposed Reissuance of the US Army Corps of Engineers' Nationwide Permits
Thursday, August 1, 1996

Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act gives the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responsibility for protecting rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands from the effects of dredging, draining and filling. The Corps' primary procedure for regulating these activities is the issuance of permits for a range of activities that alter these water bodies and related wetlands. To lighten its workload, the Corps has issued blanket authorizations, known as nationwide permits, that allow thousands of developers, farmers and others to conduct literally thousands of supposedly routine activities in wetlands and other waters without individual scrutiny from the Corps. The Clean Water Act allows for the use of nationwide permits, recognizing that many minor activities can take place in wetlands or other waters without significant damage. However, to make sure that the nationwide permitting authority is not abused, the Clean Water Act only allows nationwide permits that both individually and cumulatively have minimal impacts on the aquatic environment.

Despite the requirement for minimal impacts, the Corps' nationwide permit program has been widely criticized for allowing unnecessary, and largely undocumented, damage to wetlands, streams, lakes and other water bodies. In particular, Nationwide Permit 26 (NW26), which authorizes activities that can destroy up to 10 acres of isolated waters or headwater streams, has been seen as a significant loophole for wetlands losses, permitting the destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands every year.

In spite of these criticisms, on June 17, 1996 the Corps proposed to reissue its existing nationwide permits, including NW26, for a term of five years. In addition, the Corps proposed to add several new permits that may authorize even greater wetlands losses under the nationwide permit program. One of the new permits would automatically approve many sand and gravel mining operations in wetlands, streams and lakes--operations that can harm water quality and damage fish and wildlife habitat.

These comments present a new analysis of data obtained from the Corps of Engineers. We found that the nationwide permit program has, indeed, led to the destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands and significant damage to other water bodies. We also found very significant gaps in existing information--gaps sufficiently large that we recommend a major improvement in information about wetlands conservation and losses before any extension or expansion of existing permit authorities.