Environmental Groups Protest Loose Control Of Coastal Wetlands

Coalition Plans Lawsuit To Restore U.s. Oversight

April 23, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Charging that Maryland is making it too easy for developers to destroy the state's wetlands, environmental groups threatened yesterday to sue the federal government for turning over protection of marshes and bogs to the state.

The National Wildlife Federation and four other groups served formal notice that they will sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 60 days for delegating to the state most of its responsibility for safeguarding Maryland's 600,000 acres of tidal and freshwater wetlands.

The Corps of Engineers granted Maryland a "general permit" last year that lets the state Department of the Environment handle most requests by farmers and developers to drain, fill or alter marshes, bogs and "wet" woods.

Under that arrangement, the state is free to decide without federal oversight whether to let a landowner disturb up to five acres of freshwater wetlands or up to three acres of tidal marsh.

"This so-called permit will cause tremendous harm to Maryland wetlands and waters," said Jan Goldman-Carter, an attorney for the federation. The organization contends that Chesapeake Bay and the state's coastal bays are jeopardized by losses of wetlands, which filter pollution, control flooding and provide wildlife habitat.

Joining the federation in threatening to sue are the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Maryland Conservation Council, the Sierra Club and the Worcester Environmental Trust. Under the federal Clean Water Act, anyone planning to go to court to enforce the law must give 60 days' notice.

The groups say that the Corps of Engineers, which under federal law regulates wetlands, acted illegally in shifting its responsibilities to the state. Similar arrangements have been struck with eight other states. The wildlife federation's lawyer said the lawsuit is intended to reverse that trend and restore federal oversight in Maryland.

Spokesmen for the Corps of Engineers said they had not seen the environmental groups' letter and could not comment.

Col. Randall R. Inouye, chief of the Corps' Baltimore district, said last year that the shift was intended to streamline permit processing. Builders, farmers and others had complained of delays and duplication in seeking approvals from federal and state agencies.

"We don't want to see it going back to a more duplicative process," said Lawrence R. Liebesman, a lawyer for the Maryland Builders Association.

Environmentalists complain that wetlands protections are being sacrificed. Nine out of 10 permit applications get approved without any notice to the public, eliminating any opportunity to question or challenge a wetland loss, said Goldman-Carter.

Activists also cited a decline in the past year in inspections and enforcement actions taken against illegal destruction of wetlands.

"So many are slipping through the cracks," said Ilia Fehrer of the Worcester Environmental Trust.

But state environmental regulators contend there has been no weakening of protection for wetlands and no reduction in the public's right to know about or challenge a permit decision.

State inspectors are getting landowners to correct violations of wetlands rules without resorting to formal enforcement actions, said Dane Bauer, the state's deputy water management administrator.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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