Corps rewrites proposal on easing limits on wetlands development

Published 10:53 pm Saturday, May 26, 2007

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved a new permit to ease restrictions on development in Gulf Coast wetlands.

The permit will allow developers to fill in up to three acres of “low quality” wetlands in south Mississippi without an individual permit from the corps for each project. The so-called regional general permit does not affect wetlands in neighboring Louisiana and Alabama and is for residential developments only.

The permit has been in development since Hurricane Katrina hit the coast in August 2005.

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It applies only in Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, George, Stone and Pearl River counties. The permit is valid for two years, but may be renewed for up to five years.

Corps officials said they will coordinate with state and federal agencies on all applications, much in the same way it does on individual permits.

The corps, which regulates and protects navigable waters and adjacent wetlands, said the change will streamline and accelerate the regulatory process to allow people to rebuild along the coast.

“This regional general permit takes into account the many comments and concerns we received from the public, federal, state and local agencies when the regional permit was proposed last October,” corps spokesman E. Patrick Robbins said Friday.

Robbins said the new regional permit does not “alleviate the need for an applicant to follow the rules and regulation.”

“The only difference between an individual permit and a regional permit is if the applicant has met all the requirements and it has been validated, the 30-day public notice and individual environmental assessment won’t be required. The RGP streamlines the process but doesn’t change the basic requirements,” he said.

Robbins said the corps’ Mobile District, which issued the new rules, will create a Web site listing all permits granted and requirements placed on developers.

Robbins said developers will need to certify their own impact on federally regulated waters and wetlands. They will also need to list their work to offset the impacts.

Opponents argue the corps has not proven a need to change the rules for filling wetlands. They say the change will weaken protections to wetlands, which filter pollutants from water supplies and absorb the impacts of tropical storms, among other important functions.

“This is not helpful,” said Mark LaSalle, the Gulf Coast project director for Audubon Mississippi. “The rules made sense before the hurricane. Now it makes even more sense to be more protective of our wetlands. I don’t follow the corps’ logic.”

Robert Wiygul, a Biloxi attorney active in wetlands protection, said the new permit would theoretically allow an unlimited amount of wetlands to be filled three acres at a time. Because the impact could be so large, he said, a formal environmental impact analysis should be completed under the national environmental protection law.

“This regional permit is a classic solution in search of a problem,” Wiygul said. “I feel safe saying there are a lot of citizens and groups looking very hard at a court challenge to this decision.”