The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is insisting that new federal wetlands rules published Tuesday will do nothing to erode current protection of wetlands — a claim disputed by environmentalists who say the regulations will open the door for developers.
"Environmental groups have tried to attack any new guidance or regulation, and they are claiming there is some kind of negative effect, when there isn't," said Brooks Carter with the Army Corps in Utah.
"Somebody is taking off down a road to nowhere," he added, referring to national media accounts the new rules would eliminate requirements that wetlands destroyed by construction be replaced acre for acre.
Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert with the National Wildlife Federation, said the new rules will result in the destruction of more wetlands.
"These permits certainly signal the end of 'no net loss' as a policy of the United States," she told the Associated Press.
But those involved in Utah battles over wetlands say it's too early to tell what the impacts of the new regulations will be, because no one has yet had the chance to go through the rules, which became available Tuesday morning for public review.
"I really can't comment. I haven't seen them," said Bob Adler, a University of Utah law professor who specializes in the Clean Water Act and has volunteered his expertise in the battle to stop Legacy Highway.
Likewise, the Utah Department of Transportation is withholding judgment.
"We are not prepared to say they will make getting a permit easier," said spokesman Tom Hudachko. "Regardless of any changes, we will continue to work with the corps to make sure all their conditions are met or exceeded."
Carter said the new Army Corps rules are basically a continuation of previous policy with some language clarification to streamline the bureaucracy.
"There are no major policy changes going on, and wetlands replacement is still a fundamental part of the rules," he said.
The Associated Press reported the new rules call for "no net loss" of wetlands in any of the Corps' 38 districts, but they do not require an acre-for-acre restoration on individual projects.
Carter and Hudachko both said the new rules will in no way affect Legacy Highway permits that call for wetlands destroyed by the new highway to be replaced with new wetlands and a wildlife preserve.
"We have our permit, and we are not going to open it back up," Hudachko said.
John Studt, chief of the corps' regulatory branch, said the new permit requirements "will do a better job of protecting aquatic ecosystems while simplifying some administrative burdens for the regulated public."
Left in place was a Clinton-era requirement that developers get a permit for any project involving more than a half-acre of wetlands. Until 2000, developers had to get government approval only if more than three acres of wetlands were affected.
The new regulations also eliminate some restrictions on development in flood plains and revoke a prohibition on filling more than 300 linear feet along any stream.
Developers now will be able to seek waivers allowing them to fill up to a half-acre of any stream that doesn't flow year-round. For example, an 8-foot-wide stream that dries up during a portion of the year could be filled for up to a half-mile.
Coal mines will now have to get a written determination from a district engineer that dumping mine wastes in wetlands will have a minimal impact. Such fills will have to be replaced with new wetlands elsewhere.
The rules were adopted without formal comment from the Interior Department, despite objections to several of the measures by the department's Fish and Wildlife Service.
The National Association of Home Builders described the new permits as a positive first step, though it also said the process still was insufficiently streamlined.
"This is the first time in the 25 years of the program that the corps has not added further limitations or more paperwork requirements," said Susan Asmus, a vice president for the group.
Contributing: The Associated Press