In Michigan there's a raging debate right now over whether to get rid of the state's own wetland protection rules and leave all wetland regulation in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers.
To cut $2 million from a state budget with a $1.6 billion shortfall, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to eliminate the state's stringent wetland regulation program, in place for 30 years.
"Wetlands regulation is something the federal government has the resources and capability to handle without hurting the program," Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd told the Detroit News.
The problem, as pointed out in this Associated Press story, is that a pair of court rulings have muddled the Corps' own authority.
"The court rulings have piled more work on field staffers who inspect wetlands, process applications to develop them, and investigate possible violations, causing lengthy delays. Hundreds of violations have gone unpunished," the AP reports.
As we chronicle in Paving Paradise, the Corps is constantly overworked and understaffed -- and its employees are urged to get wetland permit approvals cranked out as quickly as possible.
In fact, by bending over backward to help developers, miners, and other applicants to get their permits, the reviewers are complying with a longstanding Corps rule: every project seeking a permit is presumed to be in the public interest, unless the Corps can somehow prove otherwise, according to John Hall, who ran the Corps' regulatory program in Florida for 15 years.
“I think this is based on a fundamental precept of the American legal system: innocent unless proven guilty,” Hall told us.
Wetland law experts say that runs counter to what's in the Corps' own regulations, which say that “most wetlands constitute a productive and valuable public resource, the unnecessary alteration or destruction of which should be discouraged as contrary to the public
Maybe that's why EPA's own wetlands director told the AP that Michigan's state wetlands program is successful, and so abandoning it is "not something that we would suggest they pursue."
Ironically, one of those court cases that muddled the federal authority, involving a defendant named John Rapanos, settled in December.
Rapanos agreed to pay a $150,000 civil penalty and spend an estimated $750,000 to mitigate for 54 acres of wetlands that were filled without authorization under the Clean Water Act. Rapanos had argued that his land was not a wetland and so he was not breaking the law -- but his own consultant and (ahem) Michigan state employees both told him that he was wrong.