Despite the dire warnings of environmental advocates, the Legislature last month passed a bill to allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to take over issue federal wetlands destruction permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law.
That’s something Florida’s builders have wanted to happen for years, because while the Corps seldom says no to a permit, the agency also moves very slowly -- in part because the Corps issues more such wetlands permits in Florida than in any other state.
But the Corps and the DEP have different standards for wetlands, and unlike the Corps, the DEP is required under state law to meet strict deadlines on issuing permits, leading to accusations that it simply rubber-stamps them. Also, the Scott Administration has repeatedly cut the budgets and staffing for the DEP and the state’s five water management districts, which also issue wetland permits.
Before the Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allow the state to take over handing out federal wetlands permits, they have to let the public comment on the proposal. The Corps’ comment period was supposed to end April 18. But Corps officials abruptly shut it down a week early, something Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation said he had never seen before.
“It seems that an unseen hand was operating behind the scenes politically,” Fuller said. “Who that was I don’t know, but what else could it have been ?”
The Corps’ Florida headquarters folks in Jacksonville said it wasn’t their decision. Instead, the orders came down from Pentagon. One phone call to Washington later and a man named Ryan Fisher, whose title is “Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works,” said he’s the one who shut it down.
Fisher, who previously worked as legislative director in the congressional office of now-Vice President Mike Pence, said the Corps is just putting the whole thing on hold, not canceling the comment period. The reason: The Corps is working with the EPA on re-writing the requirements for which wetlands are under federal jurisdiction, which has been the subject of political wrangling for years.
“We thought it would be wise to complete that” before considering whether to hand over the permitting to Florida, Fisher said. The new rule should be out and ready for everyone to comment on by the end of the summer, he said, and once that’s done then it would be time to revive the Florida takeover.
Fisher encouraged anyone who didn’t get a chance to comment on Florida’s takeover bid to hold off sending anything in until the Corps reopens the issue. But Fuller said his group had gone ahead and submitted its comments anyway, as did other environmental groups.
“We believe that the state’s assumption of the federal dredge and fill responsibilities would result in less wetlands protection with negative consequences for fish and wildlife habitat and water quality,” he said.