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New wetlands permits proposed for energy projects

Two new permits for wetlands disturbances could help ease the development of renewable power, but the changes would come at the expense of American wetlands, already under siege from a steady stream of development, according to a watchdog group that monitors federal agencies.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claims the changes could result in the destruction of hundreds of miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.

At issue are the Corps’ nationwide permits, which allow for small-scale wetlands impacts without a site specific review. The new permits would give a blank check for onshore and offshore renewable energy projects, said PEER’s New England director Kyla Bennett.

“They give free reign for land-based solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects,” Bennett said, explaining that the second permit does the same for offshore wind turbines.

The first one, Permit A, would allow energy developers to fill up to 0.5 acres of wetlands without site-specific review, as well as 300 linear feet of stream disturbances. The Corps estimates that permit would be used 225 times per year, resulting in about 65 acres of wetlands impacts.

Bennett, a former wetlands specialist with the EPA, said she’s not sure how the Corps came up with those numbers, and she thinks they may not fully reflect the potential wetlands impacts.
“The Army Corps is doing the nation a disservice with this proposal by permitting massive losses of freshwater swamps, streams, and ocean habitat,” she said. “The Clean Water Act only allows this type of permit for projects with ‘minimal adverse environmental effects’ but the Corps has plowed a battleship through this narrow loophole.”

Similarly, Permit B could be used 50 times annually, allowing up to 10 offshore wind turbines to be installed with each permit, according to Bennett.

The battle over the new nationwide permits is part of a larger philosophical debate about how to proceed with the development of renewable energy resources. Major mainstream environmental groups generally support the federal government’s push to develop renewable resources; smaller, community based groups want the feds to focus on pursuing those projects within existing development footprints.

April 18 is the final day for public comments on the latest version of the Corps rule for Nationwide Permits. PEER estimates that the permits authorize a minimum of 328 miles of American streams to be filled each year and likely substantially more. The environmental groups charge that the Corps proposal:

•    Violates the Clean Water Act requirement that this type of permit may only be issued for activities that “will cause only minimal adverse environmental effects when performed separately, and will have only minimal cumulative adverse effects on the environment.”  By contrast, the plan could allow unlimited wetland losses and allow the Corps to waive acreage limits where they exist;

•    Strips away comprehensive review by the federal resource agencies, allowing sensitive habitats to be sliced apart bit-by-bit without looking at cumulative effects; and,

•    Allows wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy to gratuitously destroy wetlands, streams and seabed, even when there are available alternatives.  The Corps would even allow wetlands destruction for parking lots, access roads and other “attendant features” of these energy projects.

“The Corps has turned wetlands protection into a regulatory car wash where the permits are spit out in assembly line fashion,”  Bennett said, explaining that, in 2003, the Corps issued 74,000 Nationwide or other permits. “These Nationwide Permits subject natural places to death by a thousand cuts.”

You may submit comments, identified by docket number COE– 2010–0035 and/or ZRIN 0710–ZA05, by any of the following methods:

Federal eRulemaking Portal: www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments.

E-mail: NWP2012@usace.army.mil. Include the docket number, COE–2010– 0035, and/or the ZRIN number, 0710– ZA05, in the subject line of the message.

Mail: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: CECW–CO–R, 441 G Street, NW., Washington, DC 20314–1000.

Links courtesy PEER:

Look at the problems with the renewable energy wetland permits

See the eco-significance of nationwide permits

View the Corps proposed nationwide permits