WASHINGTON -- Under intense pressure from Congress and the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency is backing away from plans for a publicized crackdown on people harming the nation's federally protected wetlands.
EPA Administrator William Reilly acknowledged yesterday that the public and political "backlash" against current wetlands regulations had played a part in putting off a comprehensive "wetlands enforcement initiative" that the agency intended to unveil last month.
"We're out there trying to do the job and also trying to deal with some of the backlash that we have seen develop," he said.
Business groups representing farmers, homebuilders, oil companies and other land developers have been lobbying to block what they called "overzealous" enforcement plans and to narrow federal rules that they say define too much of the country as wetlands.
He said the critics had some justification for complaint that the federal wetlands guidelines are too broad, such as encompassing 40 percent of Maryland's Eastern Shore. However, he said some people were trying to take advantage of the political controversy.
Environmental groups fear the administration is retreating from President Bush's campaign pledge to safeguard the nation's dwindling wetlands.
"It gives us, the environmental community, heartburn and real concern when the agencies that are charged with enforcing the environmental statutes are shirking their responsibility," said J. Scott Feierabend of the National Wildlife Federation.
The White House directed the Office of Management and Budget this week to review wetlands guidelines, an action expected to result in new rules that more narrowly define areas that qualify for federal protection.
Members of Congress have lectured Reilly about local "horror stories" of seemingly senseless wetlands regulations and have proposed cutting off funding for the agency's enforcement initiative.
Three dozen House members signed a letter circulated by Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., that complained to President Bush about the "regulatory overkill that is being perpetrated in the name of your public policy goal of 'no net loss' of wetlands."
The EPA has sought to quiet some of the protests by drafting revised wetlands guidelines that would drop millions of acres now covered by federal rules.