Rushing to ease endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office, Interior Department officials are attempting to review 200,000 comments from the public in just 32 hours, according to an e-mail obtained by the Associated Press.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has called a team of 15 people to Washington this week to pore through letters and online comments about a proposal to exclude greenhouse gases and the advice of federal biologists from decisions about whether dams, power plants and other federal projects could harm species. That would be the biggest change in endangered species rules since 1986.
In an e-mail last week to Fish and Wildlife managers across the country, Bryan Arroyo, the head of the agency's endangered species program, said the team would work eight hours a day starting Tuesday to the close of business on Friday to sort through the comments. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's office, according to the e-mail, will be responsible for analyzing and responding to them.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., whose own letter opposing the changes is among the thousands that will be processed, called the 32-hour deadline a "last-ditch attempt to undermine the long-standing integrity of the endangered species program."
At that rate, according to a committee aide's calculation, 6,250 comments would have to be reviewed every hour. That means that each member of the team would be reviewing at least seven comments each minute.
It usually takes months to review public comments on a proposed rule, and by law the government must respond before a rule becomes final.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall told the AP on Tuesday that the short time frame for processing the comments was requested by Kempthorne and would set a record.
How fast the rule is finished could determine how hard it is to undo.
A new administration could freeze any pending rules. But if the regulation is final before the next president takes office, reversing it would require going through the entire review and public comment period again - a process that could take months and that sometimes has taken years.