When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed changes to Federal wetlands regulations recently it received an unusual "public comment" from the Environmental Working Group: a sophisticated World Wide Web site that opposes the regulations using thousands of computer records from the Corps' own internal files.
EWG based its opposition to the new rules, including its Web site, on an analysis of more than 225,000 computerized records of wetlands permits granted by the Corps. The Washington-based nonprofit research organization obtained the data through a Freedom of Information Act request, then used the data to analyze wetlands trends and build a Web site that for the first time gives the public easy access to wetlands permitting actions.
"Under the federal Clean Water Act, the Corps of Engineers is responsible for protecting wetlands, rivers and lakes from the effects of dredging and filling," said Clark Williams, the EWG analyst who conducted the study and devised the Web site. "The Corps is issuing thousands of permits each year, but it hasn't even analyzed its own data to answer basic questions about how many acres of wetlands are being lost."
"To our knowledge, this is the first time that a Web site has been submitted to a Federal agency as part of a public comment on proposed regulations," said Kenneth A. Cook, president of EWG. "We wanted to demonstrate to the Corps of Engineers that much more information is needed before the agency proceeds with its plans to make it easier for developers and farmers to drain wetlands. And we wanted to make the information we used for our analysis available to anyone with access to the World Wide Web."
On June 17, the Corps formally proposed to extend some wetlands permits for 5 years, and to add several new permits with the potential for significant environmental damage. 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.
"Our goal was to examine the effects that tens of thousands of permitting decisions have had on wetlands in recent years," Williams said. "We concluded that the vast majority of permits requested by developers are granted quickly by the Corps, and that the permit program is causing the destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands and significant damage to other water bodies every year," he said.
"We also found enormous gaps in information about the impacts of Corps permitting actions," Williams added. "For over 80 percent of the wetlands activities for which the agency issued nationwide permits, the Corps was unable to provide such basic information as how many acres of wetlands were dredged, drained or destroyed," he said.
"The public has a right to know a lot more about the effects of Federal wetlands regulation before the Corps proceeds with a plan to extend and relax those rules," Williams said. "With our Web site, anyone can examine the same permit data we examined and come to their own conclusions."
EWG maintains an extensive site on the World Wide Web, including six separate web pages that provide access to data, reports, and analyses. The wetlands data are part of "Where You Live," a Web page that provides Internet access to EWG databases on campaign contributions in Federal elections, violations of health standards in local water systems, and Federal farm subsidy payments. Many of EWG's reports on drinking water, pesticides, and farm subsidies are also available on the Web site.