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Environmental groups fault Bush policy on wetlands

Say interpretation of ruling places vast areas at risk

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has allowed developers to drain thousands of acres of wetlands under a policy adopted last year, according to a report issued yesterday by four environmental groups.

The study, based on Freedom of Information Act requests, represents the first accounting of how the administration's interpretation of a 2001 Supreme Court decision affected isolated wetlands in states from New Mexico to Delaware. The court ruled that isolated wetlands that do not cross state boundaries and are not navigable do not enjoy the same federal protections as other wetlands just because they serve migratory birds.

Last year, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency said under the ruling they could not protect such wetlands unless they were connected to interstate commerce.

Environmentalists complained that the directive put millions of acres of rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands at risk, and the report identified more than a dozen cases in which the Corps of Engineers subsequently approved development in areas described as ecologically sensitive.

Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg, one of the report's authors, said these were ''the tip of the iceberg. . . . There's no way to describe how mindless a policy that is when it comes to wetlands protection."

Administration officials said that they are following the court's ruling and that critics are ignoring President Bush's drive to create, improve, and protect 3 million acres of wetlands.

James Connaughton, who chairs the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, said the acreage in the report authored by NRDC, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the National Wildlife Federation pales in comparison. ''Everybody loves what we're doing," Connaughton said, referring to the wetlands expansion plan. He called the report's findings ''highly questionable."

The report included an account of a 120-acre stretch of wetlands on the northwest shoreline of Galveston Bay, identified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002 as ''of national significance." After the Supreme Court decision, the Corps of Engineers ruled that only 19.7 acres qualified for federal safeguards, which allowed the Port of Houston Authority to build a shipping container terminal there.

Local environmental groups and nearby communities are challenging the project but lost recently in US District Court. Environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who is handling the case, said the construction is destroying parts of a key water body connected to Galveston Bay by ditches and water flows over land.

Mark Sudol, chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps, said his engineers spent six months surveying the site and determined the fact that water flowed from the wetlands over ground did not qualify it as a connected waterway.

Local port authorities said the project would generate jobs, adding they were replacing the wetlands on a 3 to 1 basis.

''We've made an extensive effort to be an environmental steward," said Charlie Jenkins, the container terminal project manager.

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