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Florida moving ahead to take over federal wetlands permitting

Environmental groups cry foul over a developer-backed effort that began under Rick Scott.
A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Florida is home to more wetlands than any other state except Alaska. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2008)]
A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Florida is home to more wetlands than any other state except Alaska. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2008)]

For decades Florida’s developers have pushed for the state to take over from the federal government issuing permits for filling wetlands. On Wednesday, the state took a crucial step toward fulfilling that wish — much to the dismay of the state’s environmental groups.

The state Department of Environmental Protection published a pair of legal notices for changes to its regulations that lay the groundwork for the state’s takeover of wetlands permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Only two other states have taken that step.

Related: Florida DEP wants to take over wetlands permitting from feds

“This rule is just one step in the process for the state to assume authority to administer the dredge and fill permitting program under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act,” the state’s notice says. The move is subject to the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental groups ranging from the Florida Wildlife Federation to the Miami Riverkeeper blasted the proposal, which they predict will lead to a weakening of protection for the state’s marshes, bogs, swamps and other wetlands.

“The Florida Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t have the proper capacity to take over the wetlands permitting that has been run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for decades," said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Florida office of the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. "It can’t even manage to enforce the environmental laws already under its purview.”

A spokeswoman for the agency disagreed. A state takeover “will enhance the protection of Florida’s wetlands by having the same statewide team of environmental experts who are already administering Florida’s robust wetlands protection program also administer the similar federal 404 program,” said Dee Ann Miller.

Corps officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2005, a lobbyist for Florida developers said a state takeover of federal wetlands permitting would be “the Holy Grail.” The Corps rarely rejects a permit application, but it takes a very long time to say yes. Meanwhile, the state is required to meet strict deadlines on issuing permits, leading to accusations that it simply rubber-stamps them.

In addition, the Corps and the state agency have different standards for wetlands, meaning some might go unprotected if the state takes over.

In 2006, state officials looked into such a takeover, but ended up dropping the idea because the agency lacked the resources to handle dealing with the number of permit requests.

Two years ago, though, under then-Gov. Rick Scott, the state agency revived the idea of a takeover, despite having its personnel and budget cut by Scott. The Legislature passed a bill approving the move and Scott signed it into law. Wednesday’s notices were the first sign that the effort is continuing under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Florida has more wetlands than any other state except Alaska. Developers often see them as an impediment to their plans because it’s difficult to build anywhere without touching one.

But wetlands have long been considered a valuable public asset because they absorb flood water, filter out pollution and provide habitat for important species of wildlife. That’s why they’re protected under the Clean Water Act, which requires builders to get a permit from the Corps of Engineers for filling them in. The permits can be vetoed by the EPA.

The public has 21 days to request a hearing or provide comments on the proposed rules. The contact for comments and questions about the draft rules is Heather Mason. She can be reached by email at Heather.Mason@FloridaDEP.gov or by phone at (850) 245-8480.

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