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Nationwide Permits Have Significant Impacts

Comments on the Proposed Reissuance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Nationwide Permits: Nationwide Permits Have Significant Impacts

August 1, 1996

In response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided Environmental Working Group in July 1996 with data from its Regulatory Analysis and Management System (RAMS) for permits issued under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. RAMS data were available for 27 of the 38 Corps districts covering the majority of the contiguous United States, and included a record of many activities that were authorized under the nationwide permit program.(Note 1) EWG analyzed these data for these comments, and presents the information on our World Wide Web site.

At least 136,908 activities recorded for these 27 districts in the Corps of Engineers' RAMS database from 1988 through June 1996 were authorized under one or more of the existing nationwide permits. Acreage could not be determined for most of these permits; only 23,749 activities (17 percent) represented in RAMS had valid entries on the acreage affected by the activity. However, for those activities with a valid acreage record, EWG confirmed that at least 16,464 acres of wetlands and other waters were affected by nationwide permits. Based on the available data, EWG estimates that at least 81,981 acres of wetlands and other waters across the country between 1988 and June 1996 were affected by activities authorized by nationwide permits in the RAMS databases of 27 districts studied.

Data on activities authorized under nationwide permits are more complete for 1995 than for previous years. In 1995, RAMS data indicate that 29,042 activities were authorized under nationwide permits in the districts examined. Based on the available acreage data (8,828 of these activities--30 percent--had a valid acreage record), EWG estimates that 15,552 acres of wetlands and other waters were affected in 1995 alone by the nationwide permit program in the 27 Corps Districts. If this rate were maintained over the coming years, more than 75,000 acres of wetlands and other waters could be damaged over the 5-year lifetime of the nationwide permits.

Nationwide Permit #26 (NW26), which authorizes activities that can destroy up to 10 acres of isolated waters or headwaters, has been the most commonly used of all nationwide permits. It also has had by far the largest acreage impact of any nationwide permit. Of the 29,042 activities that were authorized in 1995 under the nationwide permit program, 9,462 activities (32.5 percent) were authorized under NW26, according to our analysis. EWG estimates that in 1995 alone, NW26 accounted for impacts to an estimated 7,432 acres out of 15,552 acres (48 percent) of all wetlands and other waters affected by the program in the 27 Corps districts examined.

In selected areas, the impacts of NW26 were particularly severe. In 16 counties, EWG could confirm that more than 100 acres of wetlands were affected by activities authorized under NW26 from 1988 through June, 1996. While mitigation (usually, restoration or creation of other wetlands or other water) was required for some of these activities, there is no indication in RAMS of whether mitigation projects were successful, or whether mitigation projects were even initiated by the permittee. Based on the limited available records, and assuming that permitting rates over the next 5 years remain at 1995 levels, EWG estimates that NW26 will be responsible for damage to at least 100 acres of wetlands and other waters in a minimum of 63 counties in the 27 Corps districts examined.

RAMS data indicate that only 17.8 percent of activities authorized under NW26 affect more than one acre of wetlands or other waters. However, these permits account for 64.3 percent of all acres affected by the program. Similarly, only 6.6 percent of activities affect between 3 and 10 acres of wetlands, but such activities account for 40.5 percent of total acreage impacts. Eliminating the application of NW26 to activities affecting more than one acre could reduce the impacts of NW26 significantly.

RAMS data are incomplete, but still point to significant wetlands losses

It is likely that EWG's estimates of the acreage affected by NW26 and the other nationwide permits significantly understate the actual acreage affected by the program. EWG based its estimates on data obtained in a federal Freedom of Information Act request for data from RAMS database systems maintained in 27 separate district offices. Comparable data were not available for the other 11 Corps districts, including four districts with very large wetlands acreages: New Orleans, Norfolk (Virginia), Charleston (South Carolina) and Anchorage (Alaska) districts. Furthermore, even in those districts for which RAMS data were available, the Corps has stated that it does not have complete information on all activities authorized under nationwide permits. In its preliminary assessment of the environmental impacts of NW26, the Corps estimated that 26,000 activities take place under the permit each year, nearly three times as many as are represented in the RAMS data that EWG obtained from the Corps. For other nationwide permits, RAMS data also significantly understate the total number of activities that the Corps estimates are authorized each year (Table 1, Note 2).

If the 9,462 activities authorized under NW26 and in RAMS are representative of the activities that the Corps believes are taking place under nationwide permits, but for which the Corps has no data, NW26 may affect as many as 20,000 acres of wetlands and other waters each year. Until better information is available, it is impossible to determine the effects of an extension or expansion of general permit authority on America's wetlands.