Tighter federal water protections won’t slow some projects | Washington, D.C. News

By MICHAEL PHILLIS and SUMAN NAISHADHAM, Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Biden administration is set to step up oversight of projects that benefited from relaxed Trump-era water protections, but some projects, including a controversial mine in Georgia, will likely be able to escape scrutiny. a new examination.

It’s the latest twist in a long-running dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act, with each new administration aiming to change which waterways need federal protections. The new guidelines are intended to reduce the impact of Trump-era environmental setbacks, which included the elimination of federal protections for many small streams, wetlands and other waterways.

In a recently released policy, the Biden administration said many developers could not trust the favorable reviews they got under Trump. But the change will likely allow some projects – including a titanium mine project in Georgia – to escape a crackdown.

The new guidelines generally do not apply to developers if they have been informed that none of the waters on their property site were subject to federal oversight under Trump and could proceed without a federal permit – even if the same waters are now protected under the strengthened rules currently in place.

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It’s unclear how many projects could circumvent stricter scrutiny. Among them is the 600-acre (243-hectare) Twin Pine Minerals project that would mine titanium and other minerals a few miles outside the Okefenokee Swamp, home to the largest US wildlife refuge east. of the Mississippi River. Conservationists have long opposed the project, arguing it threatens hundreds of acres of critical wetlands.

“The Corps’ interpretation of its policy leads to an absurd outcome for sites like Twin Pines,” said Kelly Moser, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who fought the project.

The project still needs permits from state regulators.

In December, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official wrote to the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency asking for more monitoring for Twin Pines. Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, regional director of the service, expressed concern that the project could affect wetlands that are federally regulated under stricter rules.

Mirando-Castro said the mining project could dry out vegetation and increase the risk of fires, a potential threat to animals such as the endangered red cockade woodpecker.

Twin Pines President Steve Ingle said this week that the mine would have a “negligible effect” on water levels in Okefenokee. If the company sought to expand the mine, it would have to prove that it had acted in an environmentally friendly manner and go through a permitting process.

“Protecting Okefenokee is not only the right thing to do from an environmental perspective, it’s the only sensible course of action from a business perspective,” Ingle said in a statement.

The initial plan proposed by Twin Pines would have required a permit under earlier stricter regulations. He faced an easier path under Trump’s pushback and was able to modify his proposal so that the property site would not touch any federally regulated waters, according to letters provided to The Associated Press by Southern Environmental. Law Center. The company then withdrew its license.

Proponents applying for a federal water permit could now have their projects assessed under the interim rules.

Environmentalists are pushing federal agencies to reconsider their findings on Twin Pines.

The company could face a lawsuit alleging it violated the Clean Water Act, according to Ann D. Navaro, an attorney representing the developers and former deputy chief litigation attorney for the Army Corps.

The federal permitting process allows the public to comment on projects and can force builders to reduce the damage construction causes to waterways.

Last August, an Arizona federal judge who struck down the Trump rule cited federal efforts that identified more than 300 projects advanced under Trump that would have required permits under the previous rules.

Trump’s water rule was seen as a victory for builders, oil and gas developers, farmers and others who expressed frustration about the Obama administration’s rule and said that it was better to leave the protection of navigable waterways to the States. These groups often say that broad federal protections complicate their work, in part because of lengthy licensing processes.

But in November, the Biden administration tentatively reinstated a 1986 rule that is broader in scope than the Trump rule but narrower than that of the Obama administration. The move formalized the earlier removal of Trump’s rule in federal courts.

Biden administration officials said his rewrite of the rule would be done later this year.

Before the Biden administration released its recent interim guidelines, corps determinations were generally valid for five years, providing developers with a level of certainty, Navaro said.

The new guidelines undermine that certainty and will force other developers to deal with current water protections if they want a permit under the Clean Water Act, she said. “This policy will have significant timing and expense implications.”

Naishadham reported from Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press is supported by the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment

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