WASHINGTON -- The White House has rejected wetlands preservation rules proposed this month by the Environmental Protection Agency, sparking environmentalists' fears that millions of acres will go unprotected.
A White House group chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle yesterday met with EPA Secretary William K. Reilly and other officials to discuss changes to the regulatory guide Reilly issued July 10.
Although Reilly had predicted that the new guide would be endorsed by the Bush administration, a Quayle spokesman said the guide is only a "draft" and the administration is still seeking a "consensus" on ways to define and protect wetlands.
"There was no decision made" at the meeting although "there were options thrown around," said David Beckwith, spokesman for Quayle, who chairs the council on competitiveness that is reviewing EPA's wetlands proposal.
Wetlands protect waterways by filtering pollutants from rainfall runoff and ground water. They also help control flooding as well as provide food and shelter for wildlife.
Sources in and out of the administration said a critical issue for Quayle's group is "how you define what is a wetland," as one administration official put it.
Environmentalists say changes being pushed by the Office of Management and Budget would substantially narrow the definition of wetlands and exempt from regulation millions of acres that Reilly's proposal would have protected.
One issue is how wet an area must be to be considered a wetland. For example, current rules call an area a wetland if it is saturated for seven consecutive days during the growing season. This is close to what environmentalists want.
Reilly had proposed a saturation period of 10 to 20 days, which would exclude more land. But in a departure from Reilly's proposal, OMB said an area deemed wetlands should be saturated on 21 consecutive days during the growing season, according to a document obtained by The Evening Sun.
OMB left open the possibility of change, saying the government ought to solicit public comment on a saturation period anywhere from 15 to 30 days.
Another key issue is whether wetlands can be identified by the presence of certain vegetation. Linda Winter of the National Wildlife Federation said OMB would make it more difficult to apply a vegetation test in defining wetlands.
"I think that this whole process is absolutely outrageous," Winter said. "People who don't know anything about wetlands or how to delineate them are making this decision."
"The July 10 draft was real bad to begin with; this goes even further," she said. "We're talking millions and millions of acres here."
Reilly acknowledged his proposal would have shrunk the area that could be considered wetlands to what it was before the current regulations went into effect in 1989.
The current regulations have caused an uproar among property owners in Maryland and other states, prompting the government to undertake revisions.
Maryland's inventory of non-tidal wetlands mushroomed from 274,000 to more than 1 million acres, by some estimates, as a result of the 1989 regulations.
Winter said she has learned that Quayle is going to ask President Bush's views on the vegetation and saturation period issues. This could not be confirmed by the administration, however.
Bush has declared wetlands protection a key environmental goal, vowing to permit no net loss of wetlands. This policy would permit destruction of some wetlands so long as other wetlands are created.
Although Beckwith said yesterday's council meeting reaffirmed Bush's no net-loss goal, the administration has been at odds with itself over how to accomplish it.
Reilly has advocated rules closer to what environmentalists want; OMB and some White House officials have fought to restrict the definition of wetlands. Reilly, who presented his proposal to a Senate panel this month expressing confidence that it would be approved by the administration, clearly miscalculated. EPA spokesmen would not comment yesterday.
One administration official said he had hoped a set of regulations could be released in August. But, because the regulations must be published and the public given up to 60 days to comment, he said there's a strong possibility that an Oct. 1 deadline for new rules will not be met.